|It was at this moment that Jonah Hill decided to lose all that weight.|
In the fall of 2001 Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane was in a tough spot. His team had just a lost a critical playoff game, and the Yankees and Red Sox – both teams with budgets more than double his own – were poaching away the only legitimate stars on his squad. With less than $40 million and no major talent, Beane had to, as he says in one particularly vital moment in this film, “adapt or die.”
Moneyball is a movie about baseball, but the genius of it is that – without ever really trying – it’s also a movie about everything but baseball. The true story of Billy Beane and the way he changed not only the Athletics, but professional baseball, is a gambler’s tale, a redemption story, a buddy comedy, a family drama and a chronicle of a revolution all at once. That it fits all of this into its runtime is proof enough of its importance. That it does all of it well is proof of its greatness.
The film begins with Beane (Brad Pitt) in crisis. There’s no new money at his disposal, his team of old school scouts is using the same old methods to attempt to replace his lost talent, and he’s convinced the only way is to manage the team like no one has ever thought to manage it before. The problem is he doesn’t know how.
That changes when he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young stats guru with a Yale degree in economics who advises him to rethink the way he looks for talent. Instead of looking for stars, look for runs. Instead of looking for the same talent everyone else is after, look for hidden talent that other teams shunned.
Beane and Brand begin to recruit from what Brand calls an “island of misfit toys.” Players that lack in one skill but succeed incredibly in another, players who wouldn’t look good on a baseball card or a poster, players who other teams have cast off as too old, too short, too risky. Their methods immediately begin to alienate Beane from the rest of the Athletics management, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and as the 2002 season begins, Beane risks his job, his future and his entire reputation.
It may be a film about misfits, but Moneyball is loaded with top shelf talent. Director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) tackles the film with an intoxicating blend of compositions, from handheld documentary shooting to smooth, patient camerawork. I’m tired of shaky cam movies. They’re everywhere these days. But I’m also tired of movies that force a series of intricate and often unnatural compositions on the eye until the story is just background. Miller knows what his camera is doing, he knows what he wants it to do, and he- along with the brilliant cinematographer Wally Pfister – knows how to master it. It’s something a good many viewers don’t notice, but I saw it, and I was both relived and delighted.
Then there’s the screenwriting double whammy of Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and fellow Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). They’re the reason this is a baseball film that’s just as effective as a film about almost anything else. Their dialogue is pitch perfect, their pacing is smooth and their story is graceful. This is how screenwriting should be done.
But in the end it all comes down to Brad Pitt. I’ve always admired his ability to project an extraordinary naturalness into his roles, whether he’s playing a pothead or a man aging in reverse. His Billy Beane might not be the real Billy Beane, but Pitt nails this role of a former player who never found his stride trying to change the beat of the game that’s been his life. He is captivating, charming and brilliant in his simplicity. Hill matches him step for step, stepping out of his professional goofball image to reveal an actor of surprising vulnerability and range. With a sound supporting cast at their back, they carry this film, and all of the true story weight behind it drops into nothing without them.
Sports dramas – even when they’re rooted in powerful true stories – are a hit and miss game. They’re like taking that final swing on a full count with your eyes closed. Moneyball works because it’s a gamble of a movie, just like its source material was a gamble of a game. It helps that it’s a story rooted in America’s pastime, but that’s not what makes it shine. I barely know baseball, but this film reached me, and it would likely reach people who know even less about baseball than I do. Moneyball works because it’s a film about a revolution, a quiet revolution that wasn’t just about victory, but about changing minds. We need more films like this one.