Moneyball, the adaption of the best selling 2003 novel by Michael Lewis, isn’t your typical sports film. Then again, what Billy Beane did with the Oakland Athletics wasn’t typical either. The movie, directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), centers as a biopic but is laced together through a dramatic narrative. Spanning the course of one year, Miller takes us on the emotional roller coaster of a baseball general manager, insightfully hitting poignant moments of despair and unexpected jolts of hope. In this sense, it’s not a baseball movie; it’s a movie about baseball. There’s a subtle difference, but one that ultimately is able to capture the hearts of non-sports fans and make them care about a man and team that defied the odds.
The film opens like a documentary, with some blurry TV footage from the elimination game of the 2001 American League Division Series. Oakland is down to their final out in the Bronx, on the precipice of losing to the Yankees and ending their 102 win season. Announcer Thom Brennamen makes the call through Billy Beane’s portable radio. Billy, played by a grizzled Brad Pitt (Babel), sits 3,000 miles away in an empty Colliseum, intermittently tuning in and out. The crowd roars; he impulsively slams the radio down onto the asphalt and the faint tune of “New York, New York” drifts into the night. Why is this playoff loss more piercing than any other? Because Oakland, a small market city, will not be able to afford its best players eligible for free agency in the now present off-season. Mr. Miller attentively posts the number 39,722,689 onto the screen, the Athletics payroll in dollars for that season, and the ultimate reason Billy Beane has to get creative.
Cut to winter and Billy’s premonition holds true.
“We’re a farm team for the Yankees and Red Sox,” Oakland sports radio complains as the A’s part ways with Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. The banners of these once franchise faces iconically fall to the ground, and the scouting department now searches for their replacements. Oakland’s owner is reluctant to add payroll but Billy aims his frustration towards his veteraned recruiters. The aged traditionalists report their new player findings with the same logic as before, based on gut instinct and a purist mentality. Billy knows he can’t replace the best first baseman in the league, but for some reason his scouts think they can. With a fractionalized budget, Beane decides to shake things up and try his outlier approach. So he acquires wunderkind Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major and Yale graduate, who analyzes players with his computer. Billy’s latest hire injects some fervor into the A’s scout room, a kid in his first job about to discredit years of baseball tradition with a bunch of numbers.
Mr. Miller resourcefully flashes the images of spreadsheets that Brand (Paul DePodesta in real life) and Beane now linger over every day, pages upon pages of player profiles and stats mathematically choreographed. The tobacco-spitting geezers look for good bodies, nice swings, and the attractiveness of players’ girlfriends, all somehow combining to predict some high-schooler’s potential. However, the only intrguing thing for Billy and Pete is OPS, otherwise known as on-base plus slugging percentage, the sabermetric key to scoring runs, which Brand exclaims is how you win games. With this new avenue to expose, they quickly get to work, finding players overlooked by every other team for inequalities that they now cherished.
Aaron Sorkin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Zaillian, coincidentally penned the other short history and industry revolution film, The Social Network. Moneyball doesn’t quite sync into place like it did with his oscar-winning adaption last year, but it certainly works within its parameters. He re-creates dialogue in a realist manner, providing a snapshot and behind the scenes look into front office negotiation. Unlike producing quick zings for a Mark Zuckerberg, Sorkin instead opts for dry, awkward silences and unexpectedly humorous, to-the-point discourse. For a story so reliant upon expressing numbers, Sorkin finds a way to embed smart conversation with raw pathos that seeps its way through the computed arithmetic with style. Even Jonah Hill’s (Funny People) muted characteristics, which have him staring at video and charts the entire way, embed the impassioned hope to succeed.
His costar Brad Pitt meanwhile has a different type of expression, giving a profound performance in emitting Billy’s abrasive behavior and tender care-giving. Pitt’s repeated displays of tired frustration display the daily grind of a GM as he rubs his eyes and pushes his hair out of his increasingly wrinkled forehead. His devotion to finding obscure players becomes all the more enticing when Miller seamlessly flashes back to Billy’s baseball playing days. Once a prized, five-tool athlete, Billy was the exact opposite of what he searches for in the computer. Passing up a full-scholarship to play ball at Stanford, Billy opts for the big leagues and signs a contract with the New York Mets. His play declines rapidly, but strategic inserts of Billy’s big-league struggles add a motivational dynamic in his present, changing culture.
Character profiles of new A’s Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt, Wanted) and Chad Bradford (Casey Bond, Melissa Peterman: Am I the Only One) exemplify the striking difference to Billy’s younger physique, but also expose the hidden value scouts missed. Trying to keep sentiment from intruding his calculator complex, his conversations, especially with stubborn A’s manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymore Hoffman, Doubt), are simple and crude. Away from the office, tender encounters between Beane and his daughter put the game into perspective. Collages of criticism from talk radio are glued to Beane, embellishing fans’ reactionary bias, but coarse enough to stir his own daughter’s perception of him. Miller weaves in multiple opponents amongst Billy’s day to day emotional struggle and captures the spirit of a man willing to take a chance on defying years of structured baseball logic.
Instead of the cliche, third act, grand finale, it settles with an unconventional crescendo, goose-bump worthy but lacking a fiery end. Then again, Moneyball is not about hitting a homerun, it’s about getting on base, drawing walks, and changing the way we appreciate talent.
“If you lose the last game it doesn’t matter,” Billy says, but in this case, sometimes changing the game can make more of an impact than winning it.