The real test of a sports movie is whether it hooks viewers who couldn’t care less about the sport in question. Sure, baseball is America’s national pastime, but most films devoted to it still hedge their bets with compelling off-the-field plots, such as the romance in Bull Durham. Or they simplify the travails and triumphs of the game so much that even baseball ignoramuses can cheer.
Moneyball does neither of those things. It features no off-the-field steamy liaisons and, for that matter, not much on-the-field action. Most of its scenes consist of men arguing in poorly lit rooms, with jargon flying thick and fast. The one time we see an underdog player hit a homer, our protagonist deflates the moment by reminding us, in voice-over, how tempting it is to romanticize something that’s really just a fluke.
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) isn’t in the game for those bursts of cinematic excitement. He’s in it for the long haul. The movie’s biggest surprise is that he takes even baseball-indifferent viewers along with him.
The film is based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which follows the A’s through the 2002 season. Unable to match the salaries offered by richer teams, Beane turned to unorthodox techniques of statistical analysis to assemble his team — and won. His success was a watershed moment in baseball management. The film makes it something with broader relevance to the average recession-era American: a tale of what money can and can’t buy; and of the thin line that can separate winners from losers.
Winners are what the A’s scouts seek early in the film, and, like most of us, they think they can identify them by “intangibles”: charisma, confidence, star quality. Beane, we learn in flashbacks, has personal reasons to doubt those assumptions. Facing an unworkable budget, he scouts himself an out-of-the-box thinker with an economics degree (Jonah Hill), who instructs him to snatch up undervalued players with a history of getting on base. The counterintuitive strategy enrages Beane’s scouts and puts him in an ongoing, slow-burn conflict with the A’s’ manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), Moneyball isn’t far from a faux documentary. It seldom departs from Beane’s perspective, even though that means we see most of the on-field moments as pixelated replays (he doesn’t attend games). Beane is the only one whose personal life impinges on the narrative, and then only in restrained scenes with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey), seemingly his sole confidant.
Pitt is a natural choice for this tarnished-golden-boy role. His bluster contrasts amusingly with the social sheepishness of Hill’s character, which merely camouflages the latter’s massive geek pride. Their odd-couple interplay is the heart of the film.
Moneyball actually has more in common with The Social Network than with other sports movies: It strives to make numbers, software and stats — and the people who love them — interesting. No surprise, then, that Aaron Sorkin contributed the screenplay (with Steve Zaillian). Their juicy lines carry us through otherwise static scenes: Describing the A’s’ budget, for instance, Beane says, “There are rich teams, there are poor teams, there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.”
The film’s dialogue never gets as mannered or thesis driven as it does in Sorkin’s solo efforts, however. While we all know the facts of this underdog story — and baseball fans are no doubt still debating the implications — the film doesn’t push us to conclusions about why “winners” don’t always win. But it does raise doubts about whether “winner-take-all” compensation works, and not just in sports. What’s the true value, it asks, of someone who just knows how to play ball?