Friday Film Focus: Moneyball

I started watching Moneyball knowing what the movie was about. However, I was unprepared for its intelligence and depth. In the 2002 season, the nation’s lowest-salaried Major League Baseball team put together a 20-game winning streak (setting a new American League record). The team began that same season with 11 losses in row. What happened in between is what Moneyball is all about — a smart, moving film that isn’t so much about sports as it is about the war between statistics and intuition. Director Bennett Miller dials down the on-field action and goes stats to the max. He can lace his investigative fervor with emotional punch. Moneyball is a baseball movie like Social Network is a Facebook movie (meaning it isn’t). Both are about how we play the game of our lives, and the excuses we make in the name of winning.

First, we have Mr. Brad Pitt at the top of his game as Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics. He had a bad start as an MLB player, moved over to management and was driven by his pure hatred of losing. In the previous season, he took the A’s all the way to the World Series — only to have them lose and see their three best players signed by teams offering a much bigger salary. Faced with rebuilding the team at bargain prices, Beane becomes persuaded by the theories of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Brand is a recent Yale graduate who crunched numbers to arrive at a strict cost benefit analysis of baseball players. He eventually persuades Beane to hire athletes based on key performance statistics pointing to undervalued players.

Jonah Hill’s performance is understated and fascinating. His character resembles a pudgy kid who never played a game of baseball in his life, Peter has analyzed decades of baseball stats to prove that game-winning qualities are not always the ones veteran scouts look for. He’s shy and quiet, advancing his theories with amusing certainty. Pitt more than earns his keep. His golden boy luster fits Beane. With that said, the actor goes deeper by revealing a man haunted by his early decision to turn down a Stanford athletic scholarship in order to sign as an outfielder for the Mets. A once-promising career flamed out — though it prepped him well as a GM. He nails every nuance, including Beane’s complex relationship with the two people who care about him the most: His ex wife (Robin Wright) and their daughter.

Pitt’s Billy Beane is an inward lonely man. He’s driven to the point where he can’t bear to watch a game in the stadium. Sometimes, he drives aimlessly while listening to it on the radio. Beane’s fully aware that if he follows the theories of Brand and they fail, that will make him unemployable. He faces fierce opposition from his team manager Art Howe (played by the incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman). Howe feels his experience is being insulted by a manager mesmerized by some Ivy League kid.

Prior to Moneyball, the director Miller hadn’t worked since 2005’s Capote. The dynamite script is credited to Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Social Network Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin’s sharply witty touch is everywhere. There are a lot of laughs, but only one or two are inspired by lines intended to be funny. Instead, much of our laughter come from recognition and an appreciation of perfect zingers.

Late in the film, Beane gets seduced with an offer from the Red Sox. Miller lays Boston’s Fenway Park before him like a green blanket of temptation. The gifted cinematography (Wally Pfister) makes the atmosphere inviting enough to inhale. This is really a film about business. None of the individual players have major roles. The drama is all happening in the mind of a GM and his numbers guy. They bet against baseball tradition in favor of numerical analysis. They go against a century of baseball history, and learn to respect each other in the process. Pitt has some soul baring scenes with Hill in which he wonders what it all means.

It doesn’t matter if you have a 20-winning streak. All that matters is that you win the last game of the season. Even the players feel like mere inventory. But baseball is business, and only we fans love it as simply a game. Is Beane a coward for sticking with the A’s? The GM still has no World Series victory to his credit, and sabermetrics are now so prevalent that Beane can’t claim any edge. Regardless, Moneyball left me ready to cheer.

Image source: NPR