‘Moneyball’ is a smart, engaging look at an American pasttime

Brad Pitt in 'Moneyball' — Photo courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon / Columbia Tristar

Brad Pitt is having a banner year at the cineplex. His touching portrait of an involved father in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Ditto for his new turn in director Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, a smart look at how a young Yale grad and the receptive genereal manager of the Oakland Athletics changed the course of baseball history.

Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian’s script, working off a book by Michael Lewis, is clever and touching. Like last year’s The Social Network, the words jump off the screen and land pleasantly in our ears.

Pitt’s character of Billy Beane is a divorced father dedicated to both the daughter he loves and the team he needs to see win. But things aren’t going so smoothly on the diamond. In the early 2000s (and this trend continues today), the big ball clubs, like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, are spending northward of $100 million on powerhouse players. The lowly Oakland A’s can only afford a figure closer to $40 million.

It seems that every wunderkind the team finds, including Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, eventually demands more money and makes his way to the clubs where the vending machines don’t charge $1 for soda and the contracts seem to have no upper limit. So how does a general manager, outmatched in the pocketbook, win enough games to compete with the big dogs?

Beane, after visiting the Cleveland Indians front office on a trading mission, stumbles upon Peter Brand (Jonah Hill from Superbad), a wiz kid fresh from the Ivy League who has a few novel ideas about a sport that dates back to the legendary era of Babe Ruth. His thesis: Teams should treat their rosters like an economics class. Every player has a particular value, and because general managers are looking at the wrong columns, many expensive players are overvalued and many inexpensive players are undervalued. The key to everything: Get on base. It doesn’t matter whether a player walks, bunts, hits a single or sends one over the fence.

Beane and Brand, who quickly becomes the assistant general manager of the A’s, fight the old guard and decide to put their theory to the test. Their results are, at first, pitiful. But then the inevitable begins to occur: The Athletics start to win — a lot.

Moneyball will remind viewers of the Kevin Spacey film, 21, which itself is based on a true story of recent college graduates card-counting their way to millions of dollars at the expense of Las Vegas casinos. Brand represents a novel approach to the sports industry, and his work with Beane has had lingering effects on baseball. But at its heart, the two guys were counting cards.

Both Hill and Pitt have a natural likability. They work well together and have carved out nice performances.

Does the movie trip up on its way to home plate?

A little bit.

The movie casts Beane as a failed professional baseball player, a person looking for redemption behind the scenes. He’s so superstitious that he doesn’t even watch the games, instead choosing to work out or go for a drive while his players face the scrutiny of his choices. The screenplay also positions Beane as a good father who dotes on his daughter and enjoys her company more than he enjoys chasing a successful management career.

If there had to be one critique of this otherwise perfect film it would fall under the legacy department. Although Moneyball makes the case that Beane and Brand revolutionized the game, the results in the real world are little less godly. There is still an argument to be made that one can’t simply cherrypick seemingly overlooked players. There needs to be some semblance of a coordinated team.

This glaring fault is captured by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Art Howe, the A’s head coach. His responsibilities and influence in the dugout are reduced to almost nothing. Whenever he wants to go against the statistics, Beane calls him out on the carpet. But isn’t there some credence to Howe’s intuition? If baseball were all numbers, then what’s the point of watching? In some ways, Beane’s theory falls victim to the same premise used by the big clubs: You can put whomever you like in the same bus, but that doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere.

These challenges to the central conceit of the story are absent from the film (except for a few voiceovers from angry broadcasters and disgruntled old Athletics coaches). That makes Moneyball a mostly enjoyable cinematic experience, with little room for tertiary exposition. But it also keeps the characters’ heads in the clouds, rather than on the diamond.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Moneyball

  • 2011

  • Directed by Bennett Miller

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian; based on a story by Stan Chervin and a book by Michael Lewis

  • Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman

  • Running time: 133 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for some strong language

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *