Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s and a man looking to build a winning team despite having little money to lure winning players with, in Moneyball, a movie based on the Michael Lewis book.
And let’s just stipulate up front that I know nothing about baseball. I mean, sure, I get the romance of baseball, America’s pastime, if you build it, all that. But about the actual game itself and what makes a guy a good player (it seems to help if his last name sounds good being yelled in a Boston accent), I know nothing. The movie, I’m here to talk about the movie. Have a bone to pick with Beane? Direct those comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Billy Beane (Pitt) comes off another season where his A’s have fallen to bigger, better-funded teams. Now, he’s facing the loss of the three big players he had to teams like the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, a team that, according to the opening credits, has about $100 million more to spend than he does. But the A’s owner won’t give him any more to negotiate for better players. He’s left with listening to his recruiters’ predictions for which affordable players will turn out to be diamonds in the rough.
That is until he finds himself at one ballpark, trying to secure a trade, and sees a kid in the back of the room tip the decision to go for a certain player against him. Why did that general manager listen to you?, Billy asks Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a somewhat nerdy-seeming guy, after the meeting. Peter says that the manager doesn’t, really, but then lays out his own personal philosophy for picking a winning baseball team: find cheaper guys who can get on base and play them with that purpose. They might be over the hill — as is the case with David Justice (Stephen Bishop), whom Billy gets when the Yankees want to dump him — or recently injured, like Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), who no longer has what it takes to play catcher but whom Billy recruits for first base. High-value, low-cost is what Billy is looking for. Or, more specifically, high but unrecognized value at low cost. Scooping up these under-appreciated players requires them to stay under-appreciated and the rest of the league not to understand how Billy is picking them.
Naturally, “old baseball” doesn’t like this by-the-numbers approach and for the first half of the new season Billy is pilloried for his picks. But as he is able to get hold of the line up and force coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to play the team his way, they start racking up the wins.
This movie takes place during the 2002 season — so baseball fans will know how things turned out. SPOILER ALERT for non-fans: this isn’t a movie that ends up with a team at the World Series. Or, at least, the movie’s attempt at validation for Billy Beane isn’t with his team’s place in the World Series. This makes for an odd movie — it paints him as right but not completely successful. And that makes it a little tougher to pin down the character — is he a visionary or a dreamer? Are we supposed to see him as a hero in the end? I actually kind of like that you can’t definitively say yes or no. He is like most people who work on a project — not completely a failure, not a complete success. Narratively speaking, it makes the movie’s ending feel abrupt. But taken as a true story of a person’s life, it makes sense.
Though the ending might feel like a sudden “and we’re done,” the movie leading up to it feels crackling with energy. I don’t want to over-credit Aaron Sorkin, who has a screenplay credit here, but the movie has that Sorkin feel in the way it explains its specific universe and the ways its characters are following the rules and breaking them. He has an ability to make you feel fascinated by the minutia of, say, website-building or government policy, even if those aren’t things you might have ever cared about before. The movie has that delight-in-the-details side of Sorkin without quite pulling off his sparkling dialogue (it also doesn’t have his heavy hand with human relationships or his pontificating, so perhaps this is a fair trade-off).
Likewise, the movie is filled with very good performances even if I wouldn’t consider any of them great performances. The players get just enough personality to make them real people. Jonah Hill makes his character neither some kind of asocial wunderkind nor some besotted fan-boy — he’s a guy with a theory and he sticks to his guns but he also loves the game and is still learning the politics. Hoffman’s skeptical coach is a small role but he makes it work without making the guy a spittle-spewing villain or a dish rag. He is able to sum up his character’s motivation when he explains that he’s playing the team in a way he’ll be able to explain at future job interviews.
Pitt is the one getting most of the attention here, however. I can see how it could be his Oscar-nominated part — not because it’s that good but because it’s that restrained and, frankly, serious enough to warrant it if giving him a nomination is what voters are determined to do. He doesn’t show some new side of himself as an actor or some new ability, but he also doesn’t let the character get bigger than the movie, which itself is enough of an accomplishment.
Probably the best thing that I can say about Moneyball is that you don’t have to have ever heard the term before or even to have watched, with any regularity, baseball to enjoy the story this movie tells and the characters that populate it. B
Rated PG-13 for some strong language. Directed by Bennett Miller and with a screenplay by Steven Zailian and Aaron Sorkin and story by Steve Chervin (from the book by Michael Lewis), Moneyball is two hours and six minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures.