The great game – Moneyball review

Moneyball – Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Bennet Miller‘s Moneyball is an underdog tale, both on the screen and behind the scenes (but more on that later). It documents the struggle of the Oakland Athletics and their forward-thinking GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) to compete against the deep-pocketed baseball teams who can afford big names. The picture is based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, which charted the Oakland A’s employment of computerised stats and ‘sabermetrics’ and their development of a winning strategy (on a budget!). That description may not scream ‘page-turner’, but it is absolutely one of the most unputdownable texts I’ve ever had the pleasure of casting my eyeballs over – and this comes from someone whose interest in the sport ended when I was benched for an entire tee-ball game aged seven. The novel is transcendent, fusing a classic tale of America’s favourite pastime with complex statistical analysis and turning it into a thrilling and easy read. Though it can’t top the source material, Moneyball the movie is much like the undervalued players (misfit toys, as they’re described) that Beane hires to populate his team on the cheap: it gets on base every time, and is occasionally exceptional.

Billy Beane was a would-be-superstar, recruited just out of high school in the early 1980s to play for the New York Mets. The next-big-thing turned out to be an immediate has-been, not quite delivering on his so-called potential. Twenty years later, he’s general manager of the beleaguered Oakland A’s, and he has good reason to be dubious of the deeply flawed ‘scout’ strategy employed around the country (old ‘experts’ judge a kid’s confidence on how attractive their girlfriend is, and compare intangible traits such as ‘spirit’ and ‘promise’). Beane has less than $40 million to spend on players, compared to the hundreds of millions being thrown around by the richer teams. If he wants to compete and win a world series, he’ll need a new line of attack. Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale econs graduate who has developed a code – based on previously dismissed statistical theories – which spits out inexpensive and largely ignored players that are in actuality wildly valuable (I’ll leave it to the film and the book to better explain the math behind it all). The haters, including stubborn manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the aforementioned scouts, doubt his methods, but Beane is willing to put his job on the line if it means eliminating the silly ‘mythology’ behind the great game once and for all.

Steven Soderbergh was set to direct an adaptation last year, but pulled out when Sony nixed his idea of combining dramatic re-enactments and interviews with the real subjects. Miller – a former documentarian himself – took over the reins, but doesn’t entirely abandon Soderbergh’s strategy. There is plenty of  footage from the A’s 2001/2002 season to fill in the gaps. Three screenwriters have tried their hand at bringing Lewis’ work to the screen, with Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (who should be a ringer for any film about a) America and b) clinical statisticians and computer whiz-kids) receiving final credit. Moneyball comes alive in the most Sorkin-esque sequences, such as the rapid-fire trading spree Beane conducts while on the phone with three rival GMs. Don’t expect the same whip-fast dialogue throughout the rest of the picture; it’s surprisingly contemplative, and the performances across the board are wonderfully understated.

Pitt gives the most Robert Redfordian performance of his career – which is saying something – using his star wattage to imbue his prickly Beane with charm. Though he admits being devoted to destroying the ‘romance’ of baseball, we see in Pitt’s performance an unspoken love for the undeniable magic of a good match; the roar of the crowd, the history in the stadiums, and the delight in seeing a written-off sportsman achieve something fantastic. He’s a wide-eyed boy speaking with a croaky, faux-hardened voice; it’s not the first time he’s played that card, but it’s the best. Hill and Hoffman are similarly outstanding as two men caught in Beane’s gravitational pull and experiencing different levels of light-headedness.

Miller’s direction is unassuming but inspired, bringing to life backroom dealings and lounge-room conversations in a crisp, tempered and sometimes exhilarating manner. He and DOP Wally Pfister recreate the awe-inspiring and nerve jangling sensation of waiting to walk onto a pitch in front of thousands of spectators. But this is not The Social Network, despite the involvement of its producers, Sorkin, or the story’s foundation in real-life events. That was an era-defining masterpiece about the new world we live in; Moneyball is a classically composed sports flick that – ironically, considering its subject matter – recalls the era of the ‘movie-star headliner’. It may not be a championship title holder, but it’s certainly a winner.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Moneyball is now showing in Australian cinemas.

2 Responses to “The great game – Moneyball review”

  1. ‘Moneyball’ may fall short of movie of year, but that film could have several Oscar nominations heading its way. Directed with any steady hand and driven by a talented cast, ‘Moneyball’ will become much more over a film about baseball. It is a movie about intellect, guts, as well as taking on the system, and also Brad Pitt makes every line and every second irresistible.

  2. Thanks to the strange kind of alchemy that makes films as joyously unpredictable as any evenly-balanced sporting fixture, putting Pitt in a baseball movie pays off with remarkable results.

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