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Moneyball (2011)

September 23, 2011

written by: Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin
produced by: Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz & Brad Pitt
directed by: Bennett Miller
rated: PG-13 (for some strong language)
runtime: 133 min.
U.S. release date: September 23, 2011
 
 
There has to be more to a sports film than just watching actors suit up and play. The best baseball movies are never really about baseball, nor are they ever really the best because of baseball. It’s highly doubtful (yet not improbable) that anyone who repeatedly watches “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams”, or even “Major League”, does so just because they’re baseball movies. Like any movie,  an absorbing story and engaging characters must be present amid all the RBIs, OBPs and ERAs. Surprisingly, it just so happens that the statistics-laden “Moneyball” is such a rarity and so much more. 

To my knowledge, it’s about an aspect of baseball seldom seen on-screen: number-crunching in order to assemble the (mathematically proven) best team possible. As it turns out, the best players in this algorithm aren’t necessarily the most popular or sought-after. It’s not about a ball club enticing those handful of players that everyone’s clamoring for, it’s all about getting the guys who get runs. Many of these athletes have played for years, bouncing from one team to the next, laterally maneuvering within the lowest of draft tiers. They are misfits, yet gathered together, they wound up earning the Oakland A’s a record-breaking 2003 season. 

Right there we have some baseball conventions at play, but never once does it feel like something we’ve seen before. Requisite underdogs, injured players, and those past their prime inhabit the film, yet amazingly, we rarely see them play ball. There is a general manager, Billy Beane (an exceptional Brad Pitt, sporting just the right amount of charisma), himself a former player who never full-realized his hyped potential. Despite much derision, Beane goes against the grain, introducing a new strategy to recruit new players which upsets the old dogs who have scouted for decades. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Beane doesn’t arrive at this new approach on his own though. After many of his star players are nabbed by teams with bigger wallets (thank you, Yankees), he tries to wrangle some players from the Cleveland Indians. That doesn’t work out so well, but he does bump into Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, against type yet so perfect), a quiet Yale graduate with a degree in economics, who seems to be serving in an advisory role with some radical ideas. Seeing a need to think outside the box (or diamond, in this case), Beane hires the ivy league kid on his assistant G.M.  

Needless to say, it’s a move that doesn’t go over so well with his scouts or Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, stoic and delightful), the team’s rotund and stubborn coach. Beane continues to butt heads as he and Brand select players that no other team wants, yet they’re players the A’s can afford, ones with positive stats too. Despite naysayers and controversial decisions, the unlikely duo keep their eye on the ball, as Beane counts on this unfamiliar method to turn his team, his life and baseball around.

Those who followed the true story of the A’s back when it all happened or read the 2003 book by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Blind Side), may know how everything plays out, but that matters not since the characters and their stories are so absorbing. 

I wouldn’t have thought that Pitt and Hill would make such a dynamic duo, but here they are working so well off each other. Hill, known for his more outgoing comedic chops, tones it down a tad, displaying impeccable comic timing that rises out of humorous situations. His responses and expressions may come across as subdued, but Hill has a very real presence as he witnesses Pitt navigating Beane’s character arc. While Pitt delivers some of his best acting in a while, more pensive and reflective than you’d think,  he gets some solid supporting work by both Hill and Hoffman. 
 
 
 
 
It’s rare for me to actually want to sit right back down again with these characters immediately (and long after) a film is over, but that’s exactly how “Moneyball” made me feel.  I can easily see Pitt, Hill, or Hoffman receiving end-of-the-year nominations.  
 
As much as those three main actors are fantastic here, their work is elevated by a strong (albeit understated) supporting cast. We see many of them weave in and out, playing pivotal roles in the development of Beane’s characterization, providing challenges and touching subplots for the protagonist.  There’s the curmudgeonly group of scouts we’re introduced to early on as we sit in with Beane on their recruiting decisions. Some of these guys seem like they aren’t acting at all they feel so real, while you have others recognizable character actors, like Jack MeGee (“The Fighter”) and Glen Morshower (“X-Men: First Class”) as well as Ken Medlock and Nick Searcy (ironically, both were in the sports spoof “The Comebacks”). These actors play characters who feel lived-in, providing so believable an atmosphere that it feels like a documentary during their screen time.  
 
We meet many of the players as Beane recruits them or in the locker room, rather than watching them out on the field. This is great for someone like me, who easily gets bored watching baseball (I know I’m not alone), but especially because it connects us with these athletes on a human level. We see where their at in life, who they live with, and what affects them. When Beane and his infield coach (a great Brent Jennings) pay an unannounced visit to Boston Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), knowing full well Hatteberg’s contract has just expired, we witness a meeting of two parties who need each other. Seeing young Hatteberg accept Beane’s offer to join the A’s is a touching moment of elation, and then your heart will sink as you watch Pratt later portray Hatteberg’s fear of manning first base. More great character interaction can be found when Beane challenges his oldest player, David Justice (Stephen Bishop), to step up and be a mentor. Justice winds up calling Beane out on his own behavior, since for so long Beane had played such a hands off role, only listening to the game from his truck far from the stadium. These are great scenes, free from the typical machismo we’re used to in sports movies, and they showcase more fine acting from Pitt. 
 
The complexities of Beane is underlined in scenes with his ex-wife (a relaxed, blink-and-you-miss-her, Robin Wright Penn) and their daughter. These are very natural moments, often tender and sweet, like when we see his daughter (a darling Kerris Dorsey) concerned that her father might lose his job, or when Beane takes her to a guitar store and asks her to play and sing for him. Rarely do we see saccharine free father and daughter scenes in cinema, but watching Pitt gaze at Morris as she concentrates on performing “The Story” by Lenka, is a heartfelt curveball. In these scenes, we’re able to see Beane as more than a G.M. or a jock, which finds us sharing some of the same struggles and longings as he does. 

 

Some of these scenes could’ve played out with a slice of cheese, but director Bennet Miller (his last film was the excellent “Capote” from 2005), assisted with a melodious melancholy score by Mychael Danna, capture the humanity in these encounters. Working with the extraordinary Will Pfister (cinematographer on “The Dark Knight”), Miller shoots the expansive green landscape of a ball field as a place of possibilities, where dreams can be realized or shattered. Miller never backs away from scenes of silence, as he allows actors to just silently take in their situation and slowly respond, releasing the movie from any schmaltzy pretensions. 

Miller wasn’t always attached to helm this adaptation. Pitt was always there though, after directors Steven Soderbergh (who went on to do “Contagion”) and David Frankel (who has “The Big Year” coming out next month) bowed out. Serving as co-producer Pitt clearly felt “Moneyball” was a film worth developing and worth waiting for Miller to come along and make an visceral and exciting sophomore feature. 


The film’s other formidable duo are its two Oscar-winning screenwriters, Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”). Zaillan’s touch is carefully meticulous and methodical, while Sorkin delivers those recognizable witty lines and zingy banter that electrifies the screen. Together, they are undeniably responsible for making this baseball movie (that is about baseball) enjoyable for anyone. That’s right, you can hate the game and love this movie. By the time the film ends, viewers will feel like they’re sitting in the stands, having witnessed something unique: a sports film that is analytical, introspective, and inspiring. 
 
 
 
RATING: **** 
10 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    September 23, 2011 1:39 pm

    I’m so thrilled by your review, David. I lived through that A’s season, and I read the book, but I am going into Moneyball (the movie) as though it is a brand new story, something I know nothing about. I can’t wait. I’ll be at the 5pm showing tonight.

  2. September 23, 2011 11:52 pm

    It may not feel quite like the classic baseball movie others have achieved, but it’s certainly pleasant enough to be enjoyable even by non-sports fan, and features great performances from Hill and Pitt. Good review. Check out mine when you get a chance.

  3. February 6, 2012 2:35 am

    Great Review. What I kept thinking about was how we, the audience, are now on the side that historically belongs to the villains! Usually we root for the more human aspects against the soulless, money-driven numbers. But not this time. In this movie we are told NOT to trust your heart nor tradition! Trust the dry, hard, facts. Wow! That’s a brave script. So I kept asking myself, why? Why did this appeal to Brad Pitt?

    Here’s what I suspect: It’s evolution, baby! Right now science is taking a beating by the political right. It’s not just evolution and climate change, either. It’s economics. It’s the environment vs. new industry. It’s everywhere. Ultimately it comes down to politics. As the Democrats see it, they use logic and reason while the Republicans use fear and tradition. In this movie, baseball is a stand in for science and for progress.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 7, 2012 12:22 pm

      I was talking with a friend about this movie recently and he made an interesting observation. He saw Billy Beane as the antagonist and baseball as the protagonist. That makes sense to me. It’s also refreshing, because in this case we see the antagonist isn’t an “evil villain” but a guy who used to be of the system (not to mention at one time a hot prospect), who’s now working against it. I’ve read in interviews, that Pitt was attracted to the script (and the book) because of the underdog quality of it. In Entertainment Weekly #1192/1193 Pitt talked about why he took the role, “I’m a big sports fan, but not necessarily baseball. So why take the part? It was something about these guys questioning from ground zero the way we do things and tearing it apart and starting from scratch. And then going up against a system that became quite antagonistic to that questioning. I’m a sucker for an underdog story”. The article also shares how Pitt and director Bennett Miller looked to 70s films for inspiration, seeing that era as a time when filmmakers were as suspicious of the established rules as Beane was, “I love this character because it’s reminiscent to me of 70s films,” says Pitt, “Looking back at my favorites, it’s “All the President’s Men”, it’s “Dog Day Afternoon”. In the late 80s and 90s, we got caught up in this idea that a character had to learn a lesson and be someone else in the end. if you look at the 70s films I was weaned on, it’s not [the character] tha changed, it’s the world around them – just sent it off its axis a few degrees. That what I saw in “Moneyball””.

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