Moneyball is an atypical sports film. Most sports oriented films stack the odds against our lovable heroes, only to give them a chance to vindicate a season on one last play. Because of the story Moneyball is based on, we know this kind of ending doesn’t exist. Mind you, there is a monumental moment in the film that rides on the uplifting spirit of sports films, but it is merely a microcosm to the quiet impact that the film’s central figure, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), had concocted in the world of baseball circa 2002. The film isn’t about winning a championship or being the best in a particular field. Instead, it’s about a movement that tried to usurp 150 years of culture and rituals that defined America’s pastime. Defying the past is Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, a lower level team that seemingly operates on loose coins found in the cushion of a couch. After a disheartening loss to the New York Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, Beane struggles to develop a plan that would keep him from losing three of his best players to free agency. Seeing the potency behind the New York Yankees and the success that money buys, Beane demands more money from the team’s piggy bank. He is denied access and must find a way to field a competitive team while maintaining a strict budget.
Beane’s search for equilibrium between monetary resources and talent fails to be resolved. That is until he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recently graduated Yale student with a keen eye for statistical analysis. It’s through Brand’s mining of sample sizes and robust numbers that Beane begins to have a paradigm shift. His enlightenment: an absurd amount of money isn’t necessary for winning. Rather, Beane needs to find the right players who possess a string of statistical numbers to make up for the pricey, heavy-hitters he’s lost. As Brand more or less puts it, Beane needs to find players who are undervalued. By adopting a new form of identifying worthwhile players, Beane alienates the scouts that assist him in fielding a worthwhile team. His scouts lean heavily on intuition and experience, an ideal that lacks empirical evidence. Needless to say, Beane struggles with tools that have grown stale over the course of a century. His disdain for scouting reports is further weighted down by his own failed career as a ballplayer. Out of high school Beane was touted as a star, ready to burn brightly in the night. In actuality he was a black hole. Beane represented the downfalls of intuition. But his failure laid the foundation for the emergence of sabermetrics in the big leagues.
Despite fighting with his scouts, with himself and his team manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Beane crafted a team that not only hit his statistical requirements, but also kept him within budget. The most miraculous thing about the team he assembled is that it actually created waves throughout the baseball world. After a rough and tumble beginning, the team steamrolled its way to a ridiculously long winning streak (the aforementioned sports film triumph) and the playoffs. But as I said before, the film’s triumphs lie in the notion of eradicating the constraints of yesteryear’s rituals through the birth of new ideas. By intensely following history, director Bennett Miller’s insures that Moneyball is about a ripple in the water that transformed into a riptide. It’s a thematic element that doesn’t slap the viewer in the face, but one that slowly grows within us and within Beane.
To further focus our attention on Beane and Brand’s attempts to uproot a system, the script puts very little emphasis on actual games being played. We get a behind the curtains view at the daily operations of the 2002 Oakland A’s. Because the focus is driven towards operations, it would be easy to assume the film is lacking in the entertainment department. Don’t fool yourself. With a script written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball has a fantastic wit that is driven by defined characters and staunch dialogue. There’s no doubt that there is a level of dramatic flair imposed by the two screenwriters, but they undoubtedly capture the tension Beane raised within baseball loyalists and the significance of his statistical pioneering.
Amidst the statistical inference is a complexity that resides in Beane that Bennett Miller drives out with ease. With various levels of failure and success playing out on screen, Miller whittles down the fragments of Beane and exposes them for all to see. It’s through the inclusion of Beane’s failed marriage and lost career that we see a man who’s not concerned with winning any more than he’s concerned with not losing. By giving us these details, even in the slightest form, Miller gives us the inside track to a man who is just as broken and undervalued as the team he forges. Exacerbating Miller’s details is the performance of Brad Pitt. Driven to not fail, Pitt gives Beane a level of confidence that is only contradicted by the fear and doubt that manifests in overt (flipping a desk and chair) and covert ways. The latter is often demonstrated through quiet musings (like Beane isolating himself in an empty stadium) where Beane tries to assess his current situation as his family life, his past and his employment converge. Providing a surprisingly grounded performance opposite of Pitt is Jonah Hill who finally plays a character whose mouth doesn’t out talk his sensibilities. Together Pitt and Hill share a scene or two of insightful tenderness that could net both of them Oscar nominations.
Under playing the budding camaraderie between Beane and Brand, as well as the murky future for their use of sabermetrics, is the terrific score by Mychael Danna. Compared to other sports films, the score for Moneyball is an understated collection of notes. Each piece is filled with a sense of optimism and an underpinning dread that adequately captures the turmoil within Beane and his statistical theories. Up to this point, Danna’s score is my favorite of the year. If Moneyball was a baseball player, it would surely be considered a five tool athlete. It has terrific acting, crisp writing, succinct direction, a terrific score and the heart to be remembered for years to come. There’s something to be said for a film that strips all the prerequisites of a genre without losing its gravitas.