2011 // USA // Bennett Miller // September 24, 2011 // Digital Theatrical Projection (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)
Moneyball offers a spreadsheet warrior’s variation on a musty cinematic archetype: the Sports Underdog Film. Instead of focusing on a player or team, however, it trains its gaze on the offices of a big-league general manager. Specifically, the film presents the story of Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who upends the world of professional baseball in 2002 with the aid of economics wunderkind Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Faced with the most paltry salary pool in the majors, Beane and Brand privilege on-base metrics to the exclusion of every other factor, jettisoning generations of recruiting wisdom that put great stock in personalities and gut feelings. As Moneyball attests, this approach allowed Beane to detect drastically undervalued players and assemble them into a misfit team that set the American League record for the longest winning streak of all time.
The appeal of Beane’s story is self-evident: It is a tale of iconoclasm, of institutional hypocrisy and inequity exposed on a multi-million dollar, national stage. Baseball has long thrived on its reputation as a game of statistics, but when Beane and Brand attempt to distill management down to an aseptic science, nearly everyone involved revolts: players, scouts, media, and fans. One needn’t be familiar with Oakland’s 2002 streak, or with the Michael Lewis book on which the film is based, to discern that Beane’s methodology will eventually be vindicated. It is a sports movie, after all. The film’s structure and rhythms are exceedingly familiar, but Moneyball still proves to be an engaging and knotty slice of drama, chiefly due to the lynchpin performances from Pitt and Hill. Pitt’s turn isn’t the revelation it was in, say, The Assassination of Jesse James or Burn After Reading, but it typifies the trait that makes him such a watchable screen presence, especially in middle age: His perfect balance of celebrity magnetism and frank humanity. Hill, meanwhile, shines in what amounts to his first dramatic role. He plays Brand as a ball of studious timidity, except when he is expounding on his hallowed statistical methodology, whereupon his steel-plated conviction shines through.
Bennett Miller’s direction is unobtrusive, to the point of being unimaginative at times, but in a sense it gives all the other talents plenty of room to breathe. This includes Pitt and Hill, but also screenwriters Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, who stud the film with the tobacco-flecked quips and quotable locker room wisdom that the genre practically necessitates. Equally essential are the cinematography from Wally Pfister and score by Mychael Danna, which provide a strong aesthetic basis for the film’s smooth shifts in mood from forlorn to uneasy to wistful.
Major-league baseball is the film’s setting, but Moneyball is less about athletics per se that it is about gaming. Complex, multi-parameter systems present an alluring challenge: Given a set of rules and starting conditions, what principles should one follow in order to maximize a desired result? Poker sharks and fantasy sports leagues have long indulged in the compulsion to perfect a System for fun and/or profit; Moneyball is fundamentally about the pursuit of a System for real-world professional sports on a macro level. It’s not a mistake that a movie about baseball features so little baseball. In fact, the film’s backgrounding of the physical game allows Miller to flex his otherwise anemic stylistic muscles. The Athletics’ on-field tribulations are presented in almost collage-like fashion, with snippets of archival television footage, luscious slow-motion recreations, and snatches of play-by-play overheard on crackling radios.
Not everything works. The script’s determination to frame the story around Beane’s personal demons isn’t particularly successful, and Miller deflates the drama by dragging things on for about fifteen minutes too long. Moreover, there is a nagging paradox at work in any tale about a radical institutional realignment that so thoroughly embraces conservative storytelling tropes. For all that, I find it difficult to dislike the film. Moneyball is a shallow work, in that no thematic complexities lie beneath its prominent emotional landmarks, but it’s a finely crafted and refreshing shallowness, blessedly free of the nonsensical moralizing and over-developed cultural earnestness that plague so many "adult dramas".