Film review by: Witney Seibold
You would think a story about baseball theory – and not the actual sport of baseball, mind you – would be a dead bore. Thanks to the rapid-fire dialogue and arch, shop-talk-heavy screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (who wrote last year’s excellent “The Social Network”), the concepts of buying and selling baseball players seems like a complex and dynamic practice. Indeed, Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” makes Billy Beane’s real life struggle to monetize and quantify the skills of baseball players seem like a grand conceptual shift in the way big league baseball is run. For someone who knows nothing about the sport, and takes little interest in high-profile baseball games, it’s almost miraculous that “Moneyball” was such a stirring drama.
One may even be able to draw a sociological parallel between Beane’s ideas and the way human civilization evolves. Billy Beane (played by a gregarious and no-nonsense Brad Pitt) is a baseball almost-was who now works as an office manager for the Oakland A’s. His team is on an historical losing streak, and he has just lost his three most high-profile players to other teams. He attempts to buy up other star players, based largely on the old guard notions of poetry and romance. His old leathery bosses in polo shirts say things like “You should have seen the way that ball went off that bat! The sound of it!” Beane has grown disillusioned with the romance of losing, and wants a new concept.
Beane, luckily, meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a barely-out-of-school economics major who, in his timid way, finds that baseball owners are asking the wrong questions. Why hire expensive hotshot players, when outcasts are cheaper? Why not hire a good pitcher just because he has a funny throwing style? Why not a 46-year-old? They hire no-name players with a talent for getting on base and nothing more. Hiring players soon becomes a massively complicated game of crunching numbers and constantly recalculating. All of the old players find this approach to be cold and clinical and, well, wrong. The team’s manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seems to take the most exception. Eventually, though, Beane’s and Brand’s new system starts proving to be correct, and the A’s go on to win one of the longest winning streaks in baseball history.
I know I just described the story of “Major League,” or any number of underdog sports movies, but “Moneyball” actually plays more as an inversion of those old sport clichés. This is not a matter of willful players managing to show up those hoity-toity evil teams with their scrappy spirit. This is about how efficiency outweighs character. Baseball has been largely seen as a very romantic sport, full of traditions and expectations. What Beane did was try to create a great team with little money, and remove some of the mythos. This can either be seen as a tragic destruction of time-honored baseball traditions, or a bold way to cut through the treacle and focus on the game itself once again.
The screenplay is the true star, as it manages to take something that few know about, and is bogged down in technical jargon, and not only make it clear, but make it immediate and interesting. The film is not vague.
It’s, sadly, in the direction that “Moneyball” makes any errors. Miller has previously directed “Capote,” and both films suffer from far too many scenes of our hero sitting around silently in a room, staring, angst-ridden, into the middle distance. Such scenes are intended to depict the conflicted nature of the protagonist, but often feel too much like padding.
Otherwise, though, “Moneyball” is a crackerjack. Sorkin seems to have a talent for adding subtle, scattershot personality conflicts into a specialist language. “Moneyball” is a good double feature with Sorkin’s “The Social Network.”