Directed by Bennett Miller
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin
Brad Pitt as Billy Beane
Jonah Hill as Peter Brand
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe
Robin Wright as Sharon
How long is Moneyball? 133 minutes.
What is Moneyball rated? PG-13 for some strong language.
Brad Pitt Puts the ‘I’ in Team
Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about Moneyball, the Oakland A’s, or baseball as a whole, so I don’t know how much the film got right and how much the film got wrong. However, Moneyball is not made for baseball fans, or at least not exclusively for baseball fans. The movie rarely spends any time on the field (we only see the playing of one actual game), and the focus remains primarily on the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, looking his most Robert Redford-ian) in back offices, windowless rooms, and his car.
Moneyball starts in 2001 with the $40 million Oakland A’s losing to the $120 million New York Yankees in the American League Champion Series game. Further harming the franchise, the team is about to lose its star players: Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon.
Beane, witnessing the myopic thinking of his scouts and the unwillingness of the owner to expend any more money, realizes the hopelessness of his organization. While at the head office of the Cleveland Indians to arrange a trade, he recognizes a young man (Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)) who holds the ear of that team’s general manager, Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond, Journeyman, Dollhouse). Beane immediately takes an interest in the kid, corners him at his cubicle, and keeps asking, “who are you?” Probably needlessly covertly, Brand and Beane meet in a parking garage where the statistics whiz explains the concept behind Moneyball.
Instead of buying a player from the Indians, Beane buys Brand. The film doesn’t really explain how Moneyball works or bog itself down in the statistical details, which is understandable but somewhat disappointing. I personally would have liked more on what data Beane considered important and how he was able to obtain and utilize it. Nevertheless, the point is that Brand, using his special formula, finds severely undervalued players (some old, some injured) with whom Beane can build a championship team at a severely reduced cost.
At the start, this scheme seems to be a massive failure. The club becomes a laughing stock of the sports media. Beane runs afoul of scouts, executives, and coach/foil Art Howe (an underused Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though this is, to the best of my recollection, the first time Pitt and Hoffman ever appeared in a movie together). All Beane can do is continue to put his faith in Brand and hope for the best from this desperate strategy.
Although the majority of screen time is spent with Beane, for the film to work, we must believe in the relationship between him and Brand and accept why Beane would put so much faith in this inexperienced 25-year-old. Fortunately, the audience can easily buy into their working and personal chemistry. Moreover, Beane doesn’t abuse his protégé or take advantage of him and Brand does not perform any last minute twists or betrayals against his mentor.
Jonah Hill shows that he can do more than broad comedy. Although awkward and nervous, Brand is severely dialed back from what we’ve seen Hill play before, and Moneyball utilizes his strengths without showing his weaknesses. The movie also wisely doesn’t make this math genius some sort of Beautiful Mind-esque, socially incompetent robot. He’s good at statistics, but he’s still a human who gets caught up in the excitement of the game. When he interacts with the players, he sees them as people, not as tools. And, despite using statistics to teach the players areas of improvement, he lacks the smarminess of a George Costanza.
As Beane, Pitt builds an insecure character. He might appear cocky and in charge to outsiders, but he’s clearly not completely at ease with what he’s doing while knowing that it’s the only thing he can do. His team doesn’t have money, it doesn’t have recognition, it doesn’t have players. More than that, he’s in the last legs of his career. Originally a baseball player himself (albeit a failure), Beane desperately wants to do something, as he puts it, that would change the game forever. His acceptance of Moneyball isn’t the act of a wild man, a rebel, but the last ditch effort of a desperate one.
Although some of his character arc is obvious (e.g. he goes from refusing to talk to the players to actually befriending some of them, he rediscovers the magic of baseball, etc.), Pitt makes it work. Though part of the credit has to be given to screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) who bring a humanity and humor to the proceedings and, thankfully, avoid giving Pitt “The Speech.” (The moment when all the players are huddled around him and the camera slowly pans in as he gives this expertly crafted and wholly unrealistic pep talk.)
The scenes with his ex-wife Sharon (Robert Wright) and daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) are useless but mostly harmless, though probably could have been excised with little damage to the narrative. Similarly, the scenes explaining Beane’s past as a failed baseball players do not add much to the character or his motivations, which might be a testament to Pitt’s performance as a whole.
Overall, while Moneyball might not be a great film, it nevertheless is a good one. It stands out from most other movies in the genre by making it more about the personal struggle of one character than the efforts of a team or the impact/fun of the sport. The A’s are incidental to what Beane wants to personally achieve, and that’s what turns Moneyball into a film about a man about to enter middle age pondering his legacy rather than one about a slo-mo pitch and a victory celebration.