Friday, September 30, 2011

REVIEW: Moneyball

Most sports actively disinterest me. Baseball is one of the few exceptions.

But that's not why I loved Moneyball.

Director Bennett Miller has said that he hasn't really made a baseball movie, and he's right. Oh sure, the movie has some  baseball in it, but that doesn't make it a "baseball movie." A baseball movie is either about someone whose main occupation it is to play the game, or a movie in which the field action of baseball is central to the plot. Moneyball doesn't quite fit either description.

The story centers around a former player, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), but in the movie he's the general manager of the Oakland As. The story involves a lot of baseball mechanics but there's not a whole lot of on-field action. And in fact, those mechanics should be another strike against the movie for me. Mechanics in this case means statistics, and statistics mean math, to which I have a lifelong aversion. But the movie's not about math, either, thank goodness.

What makes Moneyball so ingenious is that the filmmakers have taken what was mostly a technical, mathematical book and have found the emotional through-line they needed to make it into a story - Billy Beane's story.

Beane in his youth was a promising player who chose playing baseball over a college scholarship. That decision came to haunt him. Once he got into the major leagues, Beane's potential vanished into a cloud of frustration. Not able to cut it as a player, he took a managing job with the A's instead. And it was there that he was faced with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding his team in 2002 after his star players left for greener pastures and greener bank accounts.

The subtitle of the Moneyball book was "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." Payroll-wise, the A's were more like the Z's. They simply didn't have the money to buy power players. After meeting economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a composite character), Beane comes to believe Brand's motto: "Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins." Brand's mathematical system values a player's ability to get on base above all else.

Of course, the system doesn't work at first, and the team's seasoned scouts scoff at Beane usurping years of tradition and intuition. Yet Beane scoffs at their antiquated system, in which the scouts actually consider the good looks of a player's girlfriend an important factor. But for Beane, the system means much more. It becomes a referendum on his own status. If he fails, he knows he's unemployable. And even more haunted to boot.

Two of our best screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), deserve a lot of credit for cruching the numbers even while finding the story's heart. So, too, does Brad Pitt. who delivers one of his most engaging, self-effacing turns. But Miller deserves even more credit than he's been getting.

His film Capote struck me as a tad dry. but here, Miller finds his visual and aural footing, cleverly using wide shots and silences to bring home Beane's feelings of isolation and alienation. It certainly helps that he picked a fine cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who is Christopher Nolan's regular cameraman.

In the end, Moneyball isn't as much about money or baseball as it is about redemption and validation. One can argue just how much of either Beane finally has, but this excellent film pitches a great story - even if it's not really a baseball movie.


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