Based on Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, charting the real life tail of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team, director Bennett Miller’s film cannily avoids the schmaltz and cliché of the conventional sports movie in favour of something far more sharp and engaging.
Originally developed by Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Steve Zaillian, Moneyball was set to be a very different film, with documentary footage intercut with the fictional elements. When that incarnation fell through, Capote director Bennett Miller and Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) came on board, crafting an intelligent, penetrating insight into how the sabermetrics system changed the sport of baseball forever.
The focus of the film is the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a former baseball player who never quite reached his potential after being drafted into the big leagues. With the help of his three star players – Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen – Beane leads the A’s to the 2001 playoff final, eventually losing the Yankees and seeing those most valuable players poached by the richer teams in the off season. Frustrated by the uphill struggle he faces going against bigger, richer teams, Beane enlists statistical wunderkind Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to help him assemble the best team possible within their budget.
Together, Beane and Brand do away with the old school system that the veteran coaches cling to, seemingly judging players based on how well they fit the uniform and how attractive their girlfriend is. They introduce sabermetrics, a system that objectively measures players on certain statistics, mainly their ability to score runs.
The mathematics and statistics of it could have bogged the film down in numbers but Sorkin’s screenplay is astute enough to bury all the facts and figures in dialogue that will be easily understood, even by those who know nothing about baseball. It’s a bold move to keep the film almost entirely off the field but it pays off, making the film feel less like your average sports movie. It’s handy then, that Beane would never watch the A’s play, giving the actual game sequences an extra dimension as it’s intercut with Beane’s reactions to the on-field events elsewhere.
As Beane, Pitt gives possibly the finest performance of his career. A series of flashbacks show us that Beane chose Major League Baseball ahead of a college scholarship and that things went awry, leaving the sense that he has some unfinished business with the sport. This comes across in the enthusiasm and drive in Pitt’s performance, a man putting everything on the line for what could be his last shot at success in baseball. Pitt gives us this desire to succeed but also another side of Beane, a more sensitive side that we see when around his family, ex-wife Sharon (Robin Wright) and daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). It’s hard not to get a bit teary eyed when Casey sings to her father, cutting right through the jock bravado, straight to Beane’s heart strings.
Jonah Hill’s presence in the film naturally brings a few laughs. He’s comical to just look at and he is painfully awkward but it’s a quiet, considered performance from someone known primarily for his loud, foul mouthed rants.
It’s hard to say how this film would’ve played had Soderbergh remained at the helm, or how it would’ve been as a more conventional sports film, but what Bennett Miller has crafted is a welcome twist on the genre that favours a fascinating look behind the scenes rather than the on-field drama of a sport that’s been well documented on screen. There are still elements of the sports underdog movie here, but with star players Sorkin and Pitt knocking it out of the park, Miller leads his team all the way to the playoffs.