One could argue that professional baseball is a game played entirely on paper. All a coach or General Manager needs to know about an opponent is plainly spelled out on gridded spreadsheets with rows and columns of players and stats. Right next to a batter's name is his batting average and on-base-percentage -- numbers can help define how well he hits a curve ball, bats against lefties or how many high fastballs he chases. Pitting the right pitcher against the right batter has become more of a science than an intuition -- it's an equation that has the mathematic principles of a casino table game. "Moneyball" is about the role numbers play in our national pastime, and about the man whose efforts to take the romance out of the game only reiterated the goose-pimple sentimentality that made us fans in the first place.
"Moneyball" begins in 2001 (which now qualifies as period, I guess) and Oakland Athletics' GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is staring at the back end of another disappointing season. On top of that, salary restraints are forcing him to sell his three best players -- Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen. What can he do? The New York Yankees are already using pen and paper to win championships -- they can write bigger checks. Compared to their 120 million dollar budget, the A's 39 million is peanuts. They have become a feeder team for bigger clubs; their failure is all but guaranteed.
Something needs to change. It doesn't help any that Beane's round table of head scouts are the kind of old-fashioned, go-with-your-gut "experts" that the new millennium will eventually send adrift. They pick players based on their swing style, looks and, hell, even the attractiveness of their girlfriends -- anything but what really matters. A desperate Beane, while on a scouting trip with the Cleveland Indians, runs across Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale Econ major and numbers cruncher with a highly experimental system: Buy up all the cheap players who get on base and watch the wins roll in. It's not theoretical; it's science.
The two embark on a crusade to do just that, shocking the baseball world in the process. It's a risky move, a numbers game that takes time to show effect. In the meantime, Beane faces off with the team's manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the owners, and all the baseball enthusiasts out there who refuse to believe that their favorite game can be decided by math problems. Baseball is played with your heart, not your long division.
As written by virtuoso screenwriters Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List"), based on the book by Michael Lewis, Billy Beane becomes a brilliantly conflicted hero. He's a guy with an overwhelming passion for a game that's left a serrated chip on his shoulder -- he was a promising young player who "never panned out". A dealmaker who doesn't get to know his players (makes 'em easier to cut, trade and send down to the minors), Beane still frets over the fact that the Coke machine costs a dollar in his own locker room. If he's ruthlessly committed to a system that favors odds and percentages over spontaneity, he still refuses to watch games out of superstition. While he's doting over his singer-songwriter pre-teen daughter, we see that he's really a kind-hearted guy whose decision to de-romanticize baseball is, perhaps, against his very nature. And Sorkin and Zaillian's excellent screenplay has dialogue that cracks and pops even as it draws out three-dimensional characters.
If you need one good reason to see "Moneyball", Brad Pitt as Billy Beane is that reason. From the satirical brawl "Fight Club" to the little seen, but highly poetic "Jesse James" to Quentin Tarantino's history book burning session "Inglorious Basterds", Pitt has shown a tremendous amount of range in skill and thoughtfulness in role selection. In "Moneyball" he delivers his most understated and emotionally engaging performance since "Benjamin Button". The actor is marvelous because he understands that Beane's battle is interior; it's not so much with the wage inflation or the rich club/poor club dichotomy that still plagues baseball, it's with his own blasted dreams and uncertain future.
His chemistry with Jonah Hill is equally impressive. The two have such an opposite appeal -- one being a hunky leading man and the other a frizzy-haired man-child -- that when their characters team up they become the most unlikely of success stories. (The jock and the nerd conquering baseball by deconstructing it). The actors themselves have such polarity that their charm as a duo is equally unlikely -- and considerably more delightful to watch as a result.
With cinematography by Wally Pfister ("Inception") and staging by director Bennet Miller ("Capote"), "Moneyball" is calculated to get at the inner workings of the sport, not just its rah-rah surface pleasures. The game's behind-the-scenes trading is so loosey-goosey you'd think the managers were swapping baseball cards not actual players. The game's crushing disappointments are captured in shots of an abandoned stadium, lights out and deathly quiet with Beane's silhouette projected melancholically against the opulence of an arena as eerie when empty, as it is raucous when full. On the other hand, the pressure of the batter's box, the vibrant, pastoral green of the outfield and the spirit of the fans make palpable the singular presence of a day at the ball park. You can almost smell the Cracker Jacks and Big League Chew. The film is less about how baseball is played than how it feels -- for the fans, players and coaches. Thus is the film's most endearing message: You can't take the sensation out of baseball, because baseball is universally sensational.
"Moneyball" is surprisingly contemplative, and sometimes slow and methodical as a result. But it's a highly entertaining and thoughtful sports drama that requires some brains to enjoy, but don't worry, you won't need your calculator -- just bring your heart.