With Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt; Running Time: 133 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for some strong language); Written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin; Directed by Bennett Miller.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, goes the old saying, but for Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in MONEYBALL, baseball was broken. Teams with owners with deep pockets – like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox – could attract the best players by offering the highest salaries. A poorer team, like the A’s, could scout fresh talent but it turned them into a farm team for the richer clubs. Beane felt there had to be another way.
In this adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book of the same name, some liberties are taken with the facts, but it gets the focus right. Baseball is a game rich in tradition, but tradition should get a vote, not a veto, over new approaches. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) has a new approach. Rather than looking for players who seem to have promise according to the old hands, start focusing on the statistics. Brand isn’t simply looking at the standard batting averages and win-loss records; he’s brought a whole new level of analysis to the game. If the goal of baseball is to get the most runs, then it doesn’t matter if the winning edge was from a home run or because the batter who scored got on bases on a walk.
Beane is open to this because he was once a promising a player under the traditional standards but who didn’t fulfill that promise. He understands that there’s got to be another way, even as the fans, the scouts, and even the team’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) think it’s insane. Beane starts bringing in players other teams consider too old or too much trouble or lacking in certain skills. Slowly, but surely, his strategy starts working as the A’s take off on an amazing season.
Even if you don’t care much about baseball, this is a story of pursuing a long-range strategy that defies the conventional wisdom. Here is where “Moneyball” soars, not on game footage, but on Beane confronting the naysayers, or working with Brand to bring his unorthodox methods into this most orthodox of sports. While it’s hard to parse the credit in a finished screenplay without knowing of earlier versions, it seems clear that the filmmakers were fortunate in having two of the best writers in the business, Steven Zaillian (“Awakenings,” “Schindler’s List” “Gangs of New York”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The American President,” “The Social Network,” TV’s “The West Wing”) working on it. Zaillian’s skill at adapting complex material and Sorkin’s gift for writing crackling dialogue that turns dry material into riveting drama were clearly major contributions to the film’s success.
Pitt, sometimes underestimated as an actor, gives a strong performance here as a man whose goal is to see his team into the World Series and to stay in Oakland so that he can remain close to his teenage daughter. Having been on the losing end of a marriage, a baseball career, and now the money wars in professional sports, Pitt allows us to see a man clearly relishing taking on the system on his own terms. Hill is the younger sidekick with his Brand being a fictional character. (There were issues in referring to Paul DePodesta, the real-life person who pioneered this analysis.) Brand is used as a sounding board and counterpoint to Beane, which gets the story’s ideas across even if it didn’t happen just this way.
“Moneyball” is a smart and often funny movie about money and baseball. More importantly, it’s about how someone challenging the system, can end up changing everything.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.