Baseball – the great American pastime – is arguably the most beloved sport in the nation – more so than football or basketball. It’s a game that has inspired countless musicians, poets, screenwriters and even Presidents. Me? I couldn’t care less about it! Nope, not even an inch. It’s not that I despise the sport; it’s just that I find it a slow and sluggish game with too many rules, played by overweight guys pretending to be athletes.
Now before the baseball nut in you starts to boil over and bum rush me, here’s a full disclosure: I wasn’t born and raised here. Back where I grew up, it was soccer that ruled our hearts and minds so forgive my ignorance. Add in the fact that I live in South Florida and you should be able to comprehend why I don’t like the sport. Perhaps it was a good thing that I don’t know much about the sport or of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s – the subject of Bennett Miller’s winning Moneyball – because if I did, I’m not sure I would have loved it as much.
The first thing I realized while watching Moneyball is that it isn’t a baseball movie. It’s not even a movie about the business of baseball. It’s about beating the odds stacked against you and making the best out of an impossible situation. More importantly, it’s about a man who has been chewed up and spit out so many times, that he can’t even remember what it feels like to taste victory. It’s about how he embraces his place in the world and how he stands steadfastly for what he believes in when everyone berates him for it. This man is Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and he’s played by Brad Pitt in what might be the best and most understated performance of his career.
I say this as someone who’s always thought of Pitt as a great movie star who’s used his good looks rather than his skill to advance his career. Not here. Not as Beane. Now I’m not insinuating that the real Beane isn’t a good-looking guy but as Beane, Pitt’s face is chubbier, scribbled with wrinkles and weighed down by heavy bags under his eyes. He’s constantly spitting into a cup as if his salivary glands have sprung a leak and always travelling from one business room to another in his oversized Dockers, coffee in hand. From Pitt’s performance, you get the feeling that Beane knows he’s a good looking guy but someone who realizes that his best days are behind him. Hell, he’s been slapped with failure so many times that he might as well be baptized by it. Just about the only thing that keeps him going is his loving daughter; Oh and his job. Since giving up isn’t in his vocabulary, he persists.
Moneyball opens with Beane in a situation he’s been in many times before. He’s just seen his beloved A’s once again lose their final game of the season to the Yankees and thanks to financial issues, is set to start the next season without his three best players. Sitting in the office of his boss the next day, he questions how he can he possibly compile a World Series-winning team when facing a team whose payroll is more than three times theirs. Even though his boss casually tells him to forget about it, citing the A’s as a secondary market team, Beane continues to press on.
Eventually, he crosses paths with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill – displaying a surprising knack for drama) – an economics wizard from Yale – whom he steals from the Cleveland Indians after the kid introduces him to an exceptional method of scouting by using sabermetrics instead of scouts. Under this new system, players who would have been discarded as wash-ups because of unorthodox pitching styles, bad knees (or in some cases, ugly wives) are given the call-backs because, according to Beane and Brand, when matched with the right base in the right inning, they would have the potential to become grade-A players. According to them, it’s stealing bases that win games, not hits. At first, the results don’t come, thanks to the counter-productive actions of the team’s manager Art Howe (played by the magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman) but then, as the team begins to gel, the tide turns.
As fantastic as Pitt is, it’s the behind-the-camera guys – director Bennett Miller, screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, and cinematographer Wally Pfister who deserve the standing ovation. Sorkin (The Social Network) and Zaillian (Schindler’s List) take a very statistics-oriented source novel and transform it into a warm, magnetically engrossing, fascinating, very funny, and thoroughly engaging motion picture experience that intersperses the main plot with meaningful flashbacks that delve into Beane’s younger days as a failed MLB player. It’s through these flashes that we get a clearer portrait of who this man is and what compels him to push forward.
Sorkin, whose immaculate work on The Social Network netted him an Oscar earlier this year, is once again in exceptional form. Like the Facebook film, Moneyball is teemed with whip fast, literate and witty one-liners. His fingerprints are unmistakable. And God bless Zallian, who originated the screenplay, for condensing the statistical book into such a fascinating film with a beating heart. Miller, whose last film Capote scored him a Best Director Oscar nomination strikes a perfect balance between fact and fiction in telling this story. It’s his decision to focus on Beane instead of the economics that eventually makes this film as engrossing as it is. As for Pfister, this is another stunning achievement from the one of the very best cinematographers in the business. As shot by Pfister, even the dingiest of back-rooms, walkways and offices look cool.
On the surface, Moneyball may be a movie about the business of baseball but look deeper and you’ll see that it’s a spectacularly crafted tale of making the impossible possible. It’s about finding your place in the world and not doing things for money. It’s about standing up for what you believe in. In short, it’s a fascinating film with a sterling script composed by two screenwriting legends, featuring what might be the greatest performance of Brad Pitt’s career. This movie is pure “money!”