Oddball ‘Moneyball’ is an Unlikely Success

Moneyball -- Dir. Bennett Miller (Columbia Pictures) -- 4 Stars

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Brad Pitt stars alongside Jonah Hill in “Moneyball,” a film about how the Oakland Athletics used statistical analysis to build a bargain baseball team.

“Moneyball” is the quintessential anti-sports movie. It is a baseball film in which the actual game barely features, and the players themselves are given mere bit parts in their own story. There is no inspiring pep talk delivered by a charismatic coach, and no swelling, adrenaline-pumping victory anthem in the movie’s rather pedestrian soundtrack. There isn’t even a championship game. Every human element of the traditional sports film—the cathartic emotional highs, the gritty and grizzled athletes, the intense and sweaty close-ups—has been mercilessly excised. All of which is quite fitting, given that “Moneyball” is essentially about the irrelevance of each of these to the game of baseball.

The film’s storyline, adapted from Michael Lewis’s celebrated book, tells how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) constructed a winning team at a fraction of the usual price by exploiting various market inefficiencies within baseball. Armed with the statistical models of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale-trained economist—in reality Paul DePodesta, a Harvard-trained economist who did not allow the film to use his name—Beane signed undervalued players off the scrap heap for bargain prices, crafting a team which went on to win 103 games, including an American League record 20 in a row.

What makes “Moneyball” so singular—and superb—is what it does with this premise. One could easily have taken Lewis’s material and turned it into a feel-good film—the tale of a small-market General Manager, his overweight stat nerd adviser, and their team of misfits who defied the baseball world and in the process revolutionized the game itself. But screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian—two of Hollywood’s finest—are too clever for cliché. Instead, along with director Bennett Miller, they create a witty, reflective movie that ingeniously conveys its message through its images, characterization and direction.

Visually, “Moneyball” demonstrates its preference for detached number-crunching over feats of individual athleticism by not actually showing much baseball. Like Beane—who spends his team’s games in the stadium weight room while following them on the radio—the audience is left to observe the Athletics at a clinical distance. Viewers learn of their success through animated standings and the brief voiceovers of announcers, not by watching them play baseball. During the rare scenes of the sport, there are no emotional close-ups of the players exerting effort or showcasing their talent. Indeed, when we do meet them in the clubhouse, the Athletics are mostly a laughingstock, on display in the film not for their skills but for comic relief. There is the hapless Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), who really can’t play first base and is deathly afraid of the ball being hit his way; the fundamentalist Christian Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) who earnestly tells Billy Beane that he’s praying for him; and the juvenile clubhouse clown, Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo).

This trivialization of the sport’s ostensible principals is intended by the filmmakers. When it comes to the players in “Moneyball,” we are simply not meant to care about them. For the film’s point is that when baseball is properly understood, the particular individuals populating the diamond, the emotional storylines taking place in the clubhouse, and the theatrics happening on the field are all distractions from the statistical nuts and bolts which actually determine whether a team wins or loses. An obscenely paid superstar may offer a face for a franchise—and a hero for a traditional sports film—but the lesson of “Moneyball” is that such a player can easily be replaced by two or three relative unknowns whose combined stats duplicate his production at a fraction of the cost. For both Beane and the screenwriters who bring his narrative to life, baseball is about percentage points and probabilities, not people.

Bennett Miller’s minimalist direction is a perfect fit for this cerebral storyline, ideal for a film that consciously eschews the pyrotechnics of traditional sports movies in favor of a more deliberate, calculated approach to the game. That said, Miller’s methodical technique occasionally shades into monotony, as in the plodding shot-reverse-shot scenes of Beane’s conversations with the team’s owner.

The excellent screenplay of “Moneyball” displays the talents of its two craftsmen. The effortless transposition of an intellectual idea into a workable dramatic storyline is the hallmark of Aaron Sorkin—demonstrated most recently in “The Social Network”—while the movie’s entertaining banter hearkens back to his short-lived series “Sports Night.” At the same time, the script’s more leisurely pace—distinct from Sorkin’s usual whip-smart rapid-fire dialogue—bears the imprint of Steve Zaillian, writer of the more measured “Schindler’s List” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

But while the creative choices of the screenwriting team compensate for some of the inherent weaknesses in the film’s source material, no amount of clever narrative framing can change the historical fact that the Athletics never even made it to a championship game, and instead got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Such an abrupt close to the team’s season makes for an off-kilter ending to the movie, despite the writers’ best efforts.

Of course, such purposeful plotting, characterization and direction would be for naught without capable performers—but Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are more than up to the task. Hill’s geeky, self-conscious Brand offers the ideal straight man to Pitt’s charismatic Beane, and both actors give rich, sympathetic performances. The only casting misstep is Philip Seymour Hoffman as team manager Art Howe; the character’s functional dialogue and one-note personality make it seem like Hoffman is there more due to his relationship with the director—the two collaborated on Miller’s first drama, “Capote”—than any need in the script.

Making a movie about an idea is always a risky proposition, and doing so while bucking the traditional conventions of a genre courts cinematic confusion. For these reasons, “Moneyball” almost never made it to the screen—during production, the film rapidly shed directors and screenwriters and was even temporarily shelved by the studio. A lesser group of filmmakers than Miller, Zaillian, and Sorkin would have been undone by the demands of the material, or reduced it to a forgettable formula. Yet the production team of “Moneyball” has managed to craft a film that is thoughtful rather than thrilling, while still keeping audiences entertained—in other words, a movie as odd, unlikely, and endearing as the team whose story it tells.

—Staff writer Yair Rosenberg can be reached at yrosenb@fas.harvard.edu.

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