Moneyball is so inside baseball, it’s inside out. Imagine not just another movie reverie on the virtues of the American pastime, but one with the mind-set of a back-office stats wonk. Nonfans will be hard-pressed to think up a more boring prospect—and accordingly shocked at how entertaining the film actually is.
This isn’t even a sports movie, really; it’s a business movie, recounting how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane reconfigured his “small market” team in a counterintuitive and controversial way, turning its lack of purchasing power from a liability into an asset. Instead of spending big on stars, Beane carefully packaged less expensive players in statistically formidable combinations. The result—a 20-game winning streak in 2002—altered the team’s reputation and, arguably, baseball’s entire culture.
Moneyball’s depiction of these events is deliberately automated, and all the more affecting for it. That such a literally spreadsheet-intensive story could register real human thought and feeling at all has to count as some kind of triumph. Screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) hit one out of the proverbial park in adapting Michael Lewis’ 2003 nonfiction best seller, which was subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
Brad Pitt as Beane is an obvious choice but also an absolutely correct one, as Pitt’s performance is self-conscious in all the right ways. Beane himself was once a star recruit who gave up college to join the majors, but then washed out and begrudgingly found his way into management. He likes winning, Pitt tells us with total authority, but he likes not losing even more, and there’s a difference.
Beane’s best A’s acquisition may well be the nerdy, Ivy League number cruncher who can show him why on-base percentage actually matters more than batting average. The fictional version of Beane assistant Paul DePodesta is a young man called Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)—his pudgy, timid presence shrewdly underplayed against the general ambience of dip spit and gruff machismo. The crux of the film lies in Beane’s recognition of Brand’s real value, and both actors thrive in the rewardingly complex relationship.
Moneyball is also a movie about men and systems, and of course, there is a difference between packaging and teamwork. The film makes a trade-off for its unsentimental take on trading off: While management does its mucking about, players merely come and go. In lieu of real team spirit, the movie runs on rueful humor—an ironic awareness of rugged individualism. This seems like a useful cure for genre fatigue and is probably a Sorkin touch.
Director Bennett Miller does tend to dwell on moods, and Moneyball could be shorter. That might be a symptom of Sorkinism unchecked, or else a conscious statement: Any sense of hurriedness would devalue the basic essence of a proudly clockless sport. The rest, after all, is just business.