Moneyball (2011)

Sports have always ranked low on the list of priorities in my life, and baseball probably sits at the very bottom. Although I can appreciate the statistics involved, nothing about the sport has ever intrigued me, so it was with some skepticism that I went into Moneyball. Turns out, you can have any opinion about baseball that you want, and this movie will still be amazing.

Based on the book by Michael Lewis, screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Stephen Zaillian have crafted an enthralling story about one man trying to change the way the sport is played. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane has a tumultuous past in baseball, revealed to us piecemeal through flashbacks. After turning down a full ride to Stanford to play professionally, Beane struggled on the field and burned out quickly. Harboring a grudge against the types of scouts that recruited him, Beane hires Paul Brand (Jonah Hill) and uses Brand’s system to recruit cheap players based entirely on statistics.

This “sabermetric” approach earns the ire of pretty much everyone else, from the table of scouts that work with Beane to his team manager Art Howe (a very surly Philip Seymour Hoffman). The film becomes a story about the politics behind the sport, and it’s because of this focus that the screenplay is so strong. Much like the Sorkin-penned The Social Network, the drama and tension are derived by the interrelational power struggles constantly at play. Angry at his picks for the season, Howe is defiant of Beane and refuses to play any of his new hires. In retaliation, Beane trades away the player that Howe had been relying on instead.

If this seems like an extreme measure, that’s because Beane is an explosive character. Bitter and temperamental, it would be a challenge to count the number of times that Pitt hurls objects across the room enraged. We may be rooting for Beane to accomplish his goal – putting an end to judging recruits based on how attractive their girlfriends are and other such drivel – but his motivations are undoubtedly selfish. Part of it has to do with the chip on his shoulder for the recruiting methods that led him to fail as a player. But another part of it is more admirable: The fact that he wants to win a series with the Athletics, with HIS team. His passion for his team is reserved at first, but eventually spills over into fraternizing with the players he may have to fire or trade away.

In contrast to Beane’s bombastic intensity sits Peter Brand, a recent college graduate with a degree in economics. Diffident and meek, Brand cowers in front of Beane at first before they establish a stable and very entertaining relationship. Brand, as played by Hill, may speak quietly and seem awkward in the presence of other baseball bigwigs, but he has enough faith in his science to stand his ground. This conviction is what wins over Beane (especially when Brand admits he wouldn’t have drafted Beane until the ninth round, with no signing bonus), and this resilience is what allows Brand to stick around even as Beane yells at him, abusing the power difference between them.

Watching Pitt and Hill establish a kinship is one of the film’s chief appeals. They’re in it together, against everyone else, and that’s just fine because the audience is ready to back them through their trials and tribulations. Both actors are in prime condition here. Pitt continues to show that he is a serious talent suitable for any genre, with a sad smile that lets Beane’s sorrow shine through his eyes. Hill continues to inch away from the ribald comedies that he gained popularity for, proving that there’s more to him than just vulgar hilarity. Everyone else similarly excels, from Hoffman to Chris Pratt to Stephen Bishop, the latter two as players on Beane’s motley crew of a team. And I have to single out Kerris Dorsey for being an adorable and self-aware 11-year-old actress. Assuming that’s actually her voice in those singing scenes, this girl has a lot of talent that I can’t wait to see more of.

Moneyball has very few scenes that actually take place on the diamond. Instead, it focuses on character interactions. The best scenes are those with Beane and his scouts, as their relentless droning on about irrelevant characteristics tire and then irritate Beane; a scene where Beane first encounters Brand, as he tries to trade for better players with the Cleveland Indians GM (played perfectly by Reed Diamond, who just barely tiptoes the line between courteous and condescending); and a scene in which Beane visits his ex-wife at her new husband’s house and awkward conversation fills the time as they wait for their daughter to show up. All of these scenes consist only of dialogue, but none of them are short of exceptional. Neither is the film. Soundly scripted with flawless performances, Moneyball is the best movie to come out of 2011 so far.

Final Rating: 9/10

Stray Observations:

  • I’ve developed such a trust for Aaron Sorkin. In The Social Network, he made computers programming and formal lawsuits entertaining; here, he turns baseball and math into excitement. At this point, I will follow you into the dark, Mr. Sorkin.
  • I was pretty peeved at Beane in the end for not taking that money, and I felt like it was a really weak dilemma to go out on. But I guess it made the most logical ending, and you can’t change things around so drastically if you’re basing your script off of reality.
  • Since their approach was based in science and math, I might have been siding with Beane and Brand a little more than your average audience member. But between objective statistics and “intuition”? I’ll take the facts every time.

–James A. Janisse