Arguably the best movie about baseball since Robert Redford nailed the stadium lights in The Natural, director Bennett Miller’s Moneyball combines the great American pastime, the unlikely dramedy duo of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and analytical statistics into a formula that works improbably well.
At its core it is a classic sports underdog story, but one that focuses a little less on the players and more on the disheartened general manager trying to build a winning team from the ground up. The true story stars Pitt as Billy Beane, a former baseball player who never lived up to expectations on the field who now works as the GM of the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s. Beane is tired of losing and frustrated by a lack of funding that results in his best players constantly getting poached by wealthier teams (*cough* the Yankees *cough*). On top of that, he’s stymied by the trenchant, old-fashioned mindset of the career talent scouts around him who insist on living by the century-old school of thought that says you can size up a baseball player up just by looking at him on the field.
Enter Peter Brand (a wonderfully understated Hill), a twentysomething Yale economics graduate with love of the game who sells Beane on the idea that building a winning team on undervalued (and therefore cheap) players can work just as well, if not better than, building one around two or three expensive names. Thus inspired, Beane embarks on a crusade to change Major League Baseball’s antiquated way of thinking; naturally, it’s an uphill battle.
Pitt and Hill make for an absurdly charismatic duo, with the latter playing against type as what almost amounts to the unintentionally funny straight man to Pitt’s mad scientist and in the process showing a surprising knack for drama. Miller has Pitt do all the things his does best but keeps him just muted enough to generate one of the actor’s best performances in the past few years.
Miller and Oscar-winning screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wisely avoid creating a typical sports movie, focusing less on game-night drama and more on the behind-the-scenes aspects of running a team, as well as the ordeals of players who are trying to stay viable in the face of age and injury. They also bring into focus just how much of a kick in the teeth it is to trade a player or send them down to the Minor League.
A sub-plot involving the divorced Beane’s relationship with his 12-year-old daughter feels out of place; otherwise, Miller maintains a smooth pace and somehow creates such engrossing scenes involving strategy sessions, a parking garage meeting about baseball stats with a mild All the President’s Men vibe, and con-job conference calls that the movie takes on an almost conspiratorial feel that makes the action on the field seem secondary. Think of it as The Social Network for jocks.