Dir. by Bennett Miller - 2 hrs. 13 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I had to go back and check (because I wouldn't want to lie about something like this), but "Moneyball" is easily the best film I've seen from this year. And it's not even very close, at this point. There are a couple of ways to encapsulate this movie that would make it sounds either dull (how advanced statistical analysis gained a foothold in professional baseball) or a paint-by-numbers genre exercise (an under-achieving former major-leaguer assembles a rag-tag batch of misfit players to make a run at a championship), but that doesn't accurately portray what's here.
This film is based on a book of the same name, authored by Michael Lewis, which focuses on the 2002 Oakland A's season. Lest you think this is just a baseball movie, most of the film occurs off-field and behind the scenes. In professional sports (all of them, not just baseball), there's a sort of class warfare between the big-market teams (think the Yankees or the Lakers) who can afford to pay whatever they feel like paying for talent, and small-market teams, who have to make do with significantly lower amounts of revenue (based partly on the discrepancy in revenues for things like television deals and merchandise sales). As a result, teams like the Yankees are constant contenders, able to avoid the pitfalls of "rebuilding" (a dirty word to any team's fans) by simply buying top talent at top dollar.
In 2001, the A's overachieved, making the playoffs, and paid for it by having their top free agents wooed away by big market teams in the off-season. General Manager Billy Beane (the aforementioned under-achieving former pro, played by Brad Pitt) is faced with the task of having to replace top-tier talent, but not having the resources to do so. The A's owner will not budge on the payroll issue, and that's that. During a routine bargaining session with another team, Beane has a deal thwarted by a whisper. It turns out that the whisperer is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is an economics graduate from Yale. Brand (a pseudonym - it's based on a real person who didn't want to be involved in the movie), in a secretive meeting with Beane in a parking garage, explains his view that many baseball players are valued incorrectly due to things like star power or physical presence, and mired in an ineffective means of scouting. Instead, using a system pioneered by Bill James called Sabermetrics (a form of advanced statistical analysis, abhorred by pretty much all of baseball, which is hammered home in the form of snippets of sports talk radio dialogue that runs as a form of commentary through the film), it's possible to do the impossible: to assemble a team of "misfit toys," undervalued (for whatever reason, including walking funny) and lowly paid players that could do certain things well enough to compete with the big market teams.
Having explained all of that, it's not entirely what "Moneyball" is about. In the largest sense, this is a film about what it's like to convince a tradition-bound business to try to approach things from a new angle. Most are completely unwilling to even listen, and virtually everyone is hostile (from the scouts that Beane is usurping, to the constant chatter of talk radio dj's who can't figure out what Beane is trying to do, even down to the A's manager Art Howe (played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman)). Perhaps the hostility is best summed up by a scene between Howe and Beane, where Howe refuses to play a couple of the players that Beane has designed the players around. Howe tells Beane that he has to run the team in a manner that he can explain when he's interviewing for a new job next season. Even if that meant failure, Howe was not willing to stick his neck out to try Beane's method.
I can't think of one thing about this movie that didn't click for me. Pitt and Jonah Hill work together very, very well, their sort of uneasy friendship leads to a number of laugh-out-loud scenes. The character of Billy Beane is humanized deeply - the failed marriage, his love for his daughter is clear, and the piece-by-piece explanation of how his own playing career feels like weights being added to his burden as the movie plays out. It reaches a climax during the "Streak" portion of the film: even Beane's successes can feel like failures to him. The direction was also fantastic - there are a number of baseball scenes where the sound drops out into absolute silence, a familiar feeling for those who are in absolute focus. And for baseball fans, it helps that they got the details right: actual jerseys, real stadiums, etc. Everything just works.
Obviously, something important happened during the season, otherwise no one would have bothered writing a book (or made a movie about it), but it's something that's best experienced on your own ride. This is a tight movie, and the run-time flew by. It just works, every little bit. It's got the right amount of levity, it's dramatic, it's got enough sports for the guys and enough relationship stuff (and Brad Pitt) for the ladies. There's not much more to say than that. "Moneyball" is a damned fine film.
4.5 / 5 - Theatre