Moneyball is a baseball movie aimed at people who many not necessarily even be a fan of the game. It chronicles the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics, a Major League ball team that managed to set the league’s record for a winning streak after a wobbly start of 11 losses. The A’s, struggling with funding drastically lower than their competitors and the frustration of having their best players consistently stolen away from them, turned things around with a vengeance.
Bennet Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ engrossing book pulls back the curtain and looks intently at the mechanics behind this change. This isn’t your usual underdog sports story, focused on star players, or last minute turn-arounds. It, in fact, spends less time on the ball field and more in the boardroom, in front of computers, analyizing and crunching numbers. Moneyball is more interested in statistics than on-field antics. It’s the story of a manager, Billy Beane, not the players. And it’s totally engrossing.
I went to see the film with some trepidation. I’m a casual fan of baseball and remember the events of the film, but they didn’t have the same significance to me that they might to those who revere the sport, who process the players, the games, and the wins with a mythic devotion. I was concerned that the film would come off stilted, cold, or worse maudlin and contrived. My fears were unfounded. At it’s heart, Moneyball is a story about business; about having courage to make big changes when nothing else is working, about solving a problem and rethinking a process. It’s not a brainy film, but it’s refreshing to see the majority of the scenes revolve around the details of managing a ball team. Like most business ventures, a team is a big machine, with lots of moving pieces. Aaron Sorkin, coming off his Social Network win, and Steve Zallian have crafted a screenplay that doesn’t operate off the usual sports cliches and set pieces. It’s intelligent and understated in the way it goes behind the scenes and channels human emotion through everday work relationships.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the general manager for the Oakland A’s—he was in 2002 and he still is now—and he’s just come off a loss at the World Series and the sting of having three of his star players poached out from under him. He’s left with a disheartening prospect; rebuild the team with a limited budget, and attempt to top the season he just had. When he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fresh from Yale economist, he plans to apply Brand’s practice of cost-benefit analysis to his team and its players. Brand says that ‘You aren’t trying to buy players. You want to buy wins.’ His theory is that if you break down the numbers, your goal is to aim for runs, and select players based off how they fit into the overall equation, not because of one or two star-making traits or superficial details. This of course, flies in the face of the deep-rooted traditions and practices that had built up around the game at that time.
The film is speedy in setting all of this up. We learn enough about Brand and Beane to identify with them and root for them, but the bulk of the dialogue and narrative is reserved for understanding Brand’s process and Beane’s plan for implementing it. Some of the best scenes could have been a documentary; we hear Hill laying out how these equations and statistics work, and how they can be used to improve the team, and instead of looking at a computer screen of numbers, Miller lets us see those players he’s talking about, the footage of their games, the crowd reaction. Brand and Beane are adamant that they—and their scouts—focus on the numbers, but the director and his writers don’t forget the people. It’s an effective appraoch and illuminates the later season and how the players react to it with a new and fresh perspective.
Bennet Miller is a director who I appreciate for his restraint and focus. In both Capote and Doubt he staged scenes full of emotion without playing them for melodrama. His previous efforts have had a stage-play dynamic, but here he’s doing something very different. He gets strong, sturdy performances from his actors without highlighting their interaction. Here’s a pre-award season baseball film with Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman as managers butting heads and there’s not a single juicy scene full of speeches or roiling emotion. There’s nothing to suggest that Beane or Art Howe (Hoffman) are men of garish and eloquent displays, and so they never relate that way. Most of Hoffman’s scenes amount to a low-boiling fume whose only visual trigger is shooting daggers in Beane’s general direction. This low-key approach is everything. Just as Beane and Brand are pulling apart the dynamics behind the game, Miller and company are pulling apart the DNA of the modern baseball movie and rejiggering it for a wider audience that extends beyond fans.
The acting is still key though. It may in fact be harder, if you are Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, to play plausible versions of real people than to play a fictional character imbued with your traits. Both they and Hoffman, as well as Robin Wright in a small but effective role, breathe life and vitality into Moneyball. Pitt, between this film and Tree of Life, seems to finally be embracing those early comparisons to Redford and has honed his style and affect in a way that reminds of the older actor without simply copying him. As Billy Beane he’s channeling a lot of emotions; drive based off previous failure as a one-time player, fading energy that comes from a struggle with love for the game and annoyance at the way he must play it, and even love and adoration, channeled at his daughter, but also reflected in how he manages his team, his players and scouts, and the partnership he has with Brand. Like the father in Tree of Life, this isn’t a set of behaviors, but a character who feels so multi-faceted that a couple of quick descriptors don’t do him justice. I’m curious as to what the real Beane thinks of this portrayal. In my mind, he’s got much to be relieved about and Pitt has much to be proud of.
I’ve never been a big fan of Jonah Hill, but it must be said that here he’s given the role all that it requires. A different, more confident or charismatic actor could have played Brand and there might have been an easier to digest chemistry between he and Pitt, but Hill’s Brand, fresh as he is, is like a rock —he’s marching very cautiously in one direction and makes up for his lack of experience with complete devotion to his belief. Hill reigns in all of the spastic uncertainty and smartass sass he usually brings to the table, and makes them disappear. What happens is that his persona vanishes too, and it’s the first time I’ve seen him acting and not just recycling a schtick. It might sound like a back-handed compliment but no, some comedic actors never learn how to do that, and he’s done it at a relatively young age. Hoffman has little more than a cameo, but he does what he always does; anchors the scenes he’s in with a kind of weighted presence. His glowering in the background is its own special kind of effect.
Is there an argument for why this wasn’t a documentary with real people, or why one might want to see the movie instead of solely reading the book? These performers and Bennet’s approach make a pretty good one. There’s classic Hollywood myth-making at work here, even if it’s been dilluted through the lens of reality. Is the film an instant home-run? Not quite. There’s still a tension between the drama behind the scenes and everything up-front, and those moments leading up to and through the big games lack the tension of a more conventional sports picture. Miller doesn’t want to deprive us of them though, so they are there. For the last few, this proves to be just a little too much. That doesn’t change the fact though that Moneyball achieves what it sets out to do. It shrinks and expands the game simultaneously,down to the pieces and people who make it go and then back up again to the social context it occupies. For all who love the game, it’s their chance to go inside and look out through different eyes. For all who barely know the game, here’s a chance to see what all the fuss is about. It’s a gentle and endearing tonic of a movie, reminding us why, as movie fans, we sometimes long for the fall in the middle of summer.