Dir: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey
Run-Time: 133 Mins
Based on a true story and a best-selling book of the same name, Moneyball follows Billy Beane (Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A’s Baseball team into the 2002 season. Beane has just had his best players poached by bigger clubs and has a very limited budget with which to build a team. With no money, he realises that he has to change the way his club targets and recruits new players. He hires a young economics graduate from Yale, Peter Brand (a composite character played by Jonah Hill), who is able to work out which game statistics are actually relevant and who devises a formula for working out just how effective players really are.
Once they know who the most undervalued players in baseball are, they can go about recruiting a team on the cheap; a team compromised of players that other clubs have shunned or let go, a team which is better than the sum of its parts (“an island of misfit toys,” as Brand remarks).
Don’t let the thought of watching a movie about baseball put you off. Moneyball contains about as much on field action as you’re likely to glimpse if you accidentally channel surf onto ESPN mid-game. In a rarity for sports movies, Moneyball’s dramas take place off-field: in trade negotiations, arguments in the managers office, in agitated scout meetings. What is more, all this is made to be compelling thanks to a sharp script from Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin who have managed to make statistical analysis and sports science genuinely interesting. The script is more toned back than Sorkin’s usual wordy affairs, but it is no less light-hearted and funny, with arguments often coming down to quick blunt exchanges.
The direction from Bennett Miller is deliberate and carefully paced – though at times maybe a little too carefully paced. He certainly has enough confidence in the script and in his cast to stand back and let them shine, rather than using jazzy direction or loud visuals and he avoids turning Moneyball’s climax into your standard sports film cliché – the focus around one must-win game. In fact, the important games are barely mentioned. Even as the A’s go on a record setting unbeaten run Moneyball barely cares. We’re following Beane (who famously doesn’t go to the games) as he gets agitated, frustrated and ponders what the point of a season’s worth of good work is – “if you lose the last game in the season, nobody gives a shit,” he zens at one point.
You might be disappointed that we hardly get to spend any time with the misfit players whom Beane recruits, but this is Beane’s story and throughout Pitt is magnificent, entirely deserving of his Oscar nomination. He is full of nervous ticks and pent up frustration as he listens to the games alone, full of macho bravura and cunning guile in his negotiations and yet with enough of an air to suggest that this is all a front – beneath all of this is the cracked confidence of a man who never fulfilled his potential as a player and who could be making the biggest series of mistakes of his life.
Pitt is backed by a strong support cast. Jonah Hill is suitably low-key and deadpans superbly, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent value as the A’s coach who doesn’t see the merit in Beane and Brand’s numbers game.
The only real criticism I can throw the way of Moneyball is that at times it could be made a little clearer exactly what formula Beane and Brand are using to assess players, exactly what statistics they’ve worked out are relevant. They turn up and announce that they have the answers but don’t make an effort to enlighten the audience as to what those answers are. On the other hand, doing so might have bogged the script down unnecessarily; and the book is worth the read to find out.
The Verdict: A good, punchy script, strong performances and understated direction combine to make Moneyball an engaging watch. As acknowledged at the end of the film, Beane’s methods have become common place in baseball and have spread into other sports. He may not have filled a cabinet full of trophies but he did change the sport at a fundamental level and Moneyball chronicles how and where that revolution began.