I never read Moneyball, the 2003 nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis that serves as the source material for Bennett Miller’s long-awaited follow-up to the wonderful Capote, but I didn’t come into the film entirely blind either. The film focuses on Billy Beane in his role as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, beginning with the team’s elimination in the 2001 playoffs. Shortly thereafter, three of the team’s superstar players announce their intentions to take big dollars elsewhere through baseball’s free agency process. Being among the smallest of the so-called small-market teams with ownership that insists the payroll can’t be expanded, Beane is resigned to a constant cycle of developing young players that will be plucked away by the competing franchises with overflowing coffers seemingly at the very point when those players are reaching their performing peak. It is, as the original book’s subtitle proclaimed, an unfair game, and Beane’s only hope is to find a way to exploit the weaknesses that have developed from an atrophy of thinking endemic to a game that lives side-by-side with its own history.
At the time this transformation was taken place, I was spending way too much time on Baseball Prospectus and other sites that championed this different approach to the grand old game and celebrated those who were, by their estimation, getting it right. Beane was chief among those venerated souls, and I found myself rooting for the A’s, once a team that I really disliked. It wasn’t my natural inclination to root for an underdog that drove this. Instead, it was the satisfaction on cheering on people who seemed to be doing things right, and developing a more exciting brand of baseball in the process.
So I’ll concede to an automatic inclination towards Moneyball, or at least enough of a working knowledge of the ideas conveyed and addressed that it wasn’t difficult for me to parse the battle that centered around the fierce debates over evaluating talent on the basis of either stats or feel. It seems to me that Bennett handles these elements deftly–mostly by making the baseball arcana part of easily graspable conflicts rather than taking great pains to explain the competing theories–but, admittedly, I may not be the best judge. That noted, I’m arguably equally inclined to judge the film more harshly, to see the inevitable tweaks for the sake of developing drama to be misbegotten betrayals of the truth. Trying my best to put aside any preconceptions, I land on this conclusion: Moneyball is fantastic.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane as a baseball executive whose tenure is informed by his own experience as a can’t miss prospect who missed. He’s not bitter, but it does lend him a healthy skepticism about the prevailing philosophies of the old-timers who run the game. Pitt invests the character with personality, but always making sure the details of the performance reasonably match the clear nature of the man he plays. As was the case with Tree of Life, wearing the mild burden of age suits Pitt. It causes him to set aside the distancing sheen of stardom that has dogged him for most of his career and settle into the character with an enlivening ease. He has less vanity here than in the roles from earlier in his career when he scruffed himself up in a transparent stab at raggedness. He especially good in the scenes that allow him to play off Jonah Hill, admirably strong as the numbers whiz plucked from the Cleveland Indians front office to help reshape the team. Again, it may be my endearing love of the inner workings of the sport typing, but I felt like I could have happily watched a whole film about the two of them work the phones together on trade deadline day.
Working from a screenplay credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Miller entirely rejects sports movies. A veteran player who’s challenged to be a mentor immediately discovers just how hard that is, and reality argued against a triumphant ending, at least one not reliant on a metaphor meant to be a balm on the pain of disappointment. Miller’s directing is as sleek and refined as it was in Capote, but with an extra surge of energy that comes naturally from a story about men who make the living by taking to a big green field and throwing a ball around. Capote was necessarily grave, but Moneyball allows for some fun to be had. Miller acknowledges the ingenuity and inspiration of what Beane and his cohorts did, but also, as evidenced by his light approach, doesn’t get bogged down by a belief that some transformation of the greatest import took place. It’s only a game, after all. It’s still a joy to watch a small group of smart people learn how to play it in a whole new way.