By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Even folks who don’t cherish the game should enjoy Moneyball, but not as much as their baseball-loving friends.
Moneyball is a biographical baseball flick that addresses the statistics-oriented approach to assembling a baseball team, explaining the way that a small-market, low-budget Major League baseball club can compete with big-market, high-payroll teams.
But it’s also a probing look by one of America’s pastimes — movies — into our ultimate national pastime: baseball. Come to think of it, the narrative arc could just as easily have been applied to the movie business as the baseball business.
Brad Pitt, who also produced, stars as trailblazing Billy Beane — a real-life ex-baseball player whose on-field career never quite panned out — who becomes the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics at a time, in 2002, when the team has just been dismantled after being raided by richer teams offering lucrative contracts to their top free-agent players.
It is a time of change in baseball and Beane employs a new strategy under the guidance of his assistant general manager, an economics whiz from Yale, Peter Brand (the pseudonym for Paul DePodesta, who wouldn’t let the producers use his name) played by Jonah Hill. Brand preaches statistics-driven sabermetrics — the use of data analysis to gauge the fiscal value of baseball attributes — as a way to challenge several of baseball’s most fundamental assumptions and take a non-traditional, if not revolutionary, approach to scouting players.
They will crunch the numbers and then hire modestly-salaried players or frequently-cast-off or injury-prone players who have impressive statistics in particular newfangled categories, such as OPS: on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
The theory seems to hold water, because although the A’s on paper look dreadful, instead of being doormats, they suddenly start winning.
Oscar-nominated director Bennett Miller (Capote) likes to tell interviewers that his Moneyball is not a baseball movie. Well, of course it is. And it also isn’t, which he demonstrates by moving things along swiftly in Act One and then slowly in Act Three, when he lets the game get away from him and ends up resorting to extra endings that feel like crowd-displeasing extra innings. The director does, however, always maintain an unconventional, character-driven approach to the material.
The surprisingly funny screenplay, based on Stan Chervin’s story adapted from the 2003 Michael Lewis nonfiction best-seller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is by two gifted screenwriters, Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). They include minimal game footage but plenty of sparkling-dialogue shop talk, enough to provide a convincingly detailed and persuasive explanation of baseball’s particular magic. But neither that nor the description of the changing economic philosophy behind it ever obscures the central story of Billy Beane.
Robin Wright plays Beane’s wife and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who won the Best Actor Oscar for Miller’s Capote) A’s manager Art Howe, who is constantly at odds with Bean and Brand. But both actors spend most of the game on the bench: this movie belongs to Pitt and Hill. Charismatic Pitt is excellent in his star turn — assured and technically proficient — as the cocky but vulnerable failed jock and steadfast dreamer who overcomes overwhelming odds, and Hill, amusing as ever but delightfully deadpan, gets to show us a new serious color or two in his nerd-out-of-water outing.
For folks who already embrace the game of professional baseball and especially the everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know bounty of its endless statistics, this should be a deliriously joyful experience. And not because it offers a climactic third-act championship game, which (bless its atypical heart) it does not.
No, this is not the best baseball movie ever made — so it does not rank with Field of Dreams or The Natural or Bull Durham or Eight Men Out or A League of Their Own. But it probably is the best movie yet about the business of baseball.
So we’ll lay down a bunt of 3 stars out of 4 for the fascinating baseball-reinvented drama, Moneyball. We’re not in home run territory here, but this is at least a ground-rule double.