Using stats and numbers-crunching in a way most dismiss as foolish, Oakland Aís general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) makes the most of his teamís meager budget, putting together a squad of nobodies, future greats, and has-beens who defy the odds and make history.
Iíve read the (very good) Michael Lewis book on which Moneyball is based, and I had no idea how anyone could possibly turn it into a movie. Itís often dense with stats and math (two things I absolutely hate), and there doesnít appear to be much of a narrative line. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkinís smart, witty script (which fudges some of the facts, but never mind) solves this by shifting the focus to Beane, making the plot the story of an iconoclast out to prove that his way of doing things works.
The sabermetrics (the term coined by Bill James to describe the system of statistical analysis he helped pioneer) gets pushed into the background a bit, largely only brought out in order to provide enough of an understanding as to what Beane is doing and why everyone else thinks heís lost his damn mind. As a result, the movieís storytelling is somewhat more conventional than the particulars of this story might lead you to expect, something of a quasi story of redemption, but this is enriched by the intelligence and insight of the script. Moneyball has quite a bit on its mind, and the script makes most of it work. Simply put, this is the best baseball movie Iíve ever seen.
Thereís very little actual baseball in the movie, and thatís one of the things I really like about. As much as I enjoy watching baseball, I donít like watching baseball in movies. Fictionalized baseball is almost always nonsense, contrived and artificial. The Natural is the ne plus ultra of this, cornpone melodrama that starts silly and gets progressively sillier as it goes along, with game play that is laughably overwrought (and donít even get me started on how it defecates all over its source material).
Real baseball has a quality that fictionalized baseball canít replicate; watching nine guys dealing with variables while working toward a common goal is infinitely more interesting than watching nine actors dealing with clichťs. In a way, what Zaillian, Sorkin, and director Bennett Miller (making his first movie since 2005ís Capote) do in Moneyball is take what real baseball players do on the field and deftly shift it to the backroom dealings most people never get to see. Beane employs a certain set of skills to put together a winning team, using what he has in every way possible, never worrying about what he canít control, and he adapts and/or switches tactics whenever necessary. Itís a rather brilliant storytelling move.
Beane didnít invent the system he employs, but he did validate it. So what you have here isnít the story of a washed-up or underdog player looking to make good, but rather the story of a guy who knows he canít compete with the big boys in terms of money (the Aís almost knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs in 2001, this despite the fact they had roughly a third of the Yankeesí payroll) but can in terms of mechanics.
Essentially what Beane and assistant general manager Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, whose character is a composite of former Aís assistant GM Paul DePodesta and a few other members of Beaneís staff) do is construct a machine, one carefully put together out of certain gears, gears which will only work if theyíre not tampered with in any way. Manufacturing runs is a key to winning baseball games, and the entire Aís team was put together to manufacture runs. The methods may have been a bit unconventional, but the simple idea of it is so obvious you wonder why everyone hasnít been doing it for years.
Watching Beane and Brand make their plan work generates an interest and excitement you--or at least I--generally donít find in more conventional baseball flicks. Their efforts are met with resistance from manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who thinks he should play the big names (Carlos Pena, for example), as thatís the way the game has always been played and thatís what put butts in the stands and gets people to turn on their televisions. That isnít how Beane and Brandís method works, though, so the Aís initially donít win and Beane and Brand take the heat.
A lot of people will already know the outcome (the winning streak the Aís put together in 2002 [a sequence of events handled incredibly well here; itís the only real baseball action in the movie, so its inclusion actually seems special] and the Red Soxís World Series win in 2004 proved the method works), but thereís something so fundamentally entertaining about watching smart, likeable guys working toward a goal that Moneyball did for me what Field of Dreams or The Natural never could. The naked, obvious emotional manipulation of those movies could never do what the intellectual pull (which in turns leads to an emotional pull) of this one managed to do. I never thought Iíd see anything come close to being a cerebral movie about sports; Iíll be damned if Moneyball doesnít, though.
As good as it is, though, the movieís not a complete success. The pacing can be a bit pokey at times, especially early on. Beaneís relationship with his ex-wife (Robin Wright) is awkwardly shoehorned into the plot. His relationship with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is handled well in the beginning, but at some point she starts edging toward becoming one of those precocious moppets you often find in sports flicks, and for some reason sheís the character Zaillian and Sorkin chose to saddle with much of the scriptís expository dialogue. And thereís one scene I absolutely hate; it has a character explain something about (and to) Beane I canít imagine anyone watching wonít already understand. But hey, I didnít say it was a perfect baseball movie, only the best Iíve ever seen.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer has a bit of trouble resolving the movieís generally dark visual scheme. Bennett and cinematographer Wally Pfister give the movie a largely naturalistic look, and most locations are lit and photographed to look as realistic as possible. This results in colors that are vibrant but never oversaturated or unnaturally bold, natural skintones, a nice contrast between the various settings, and several scenes that dazzle with their depth and clarity. But it also means a lot of dark interiors, and the encode doesnít handle blacks very well, which leads to more than a little crush. Aliasing is also a problem at times, particularly in more complex clothing patterns.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English, French, and Spanish varieties) fares a little better than the video presentation, but the movieís sound design is just a bit uneven. Thereís a good sense of place in some locations (cramped offices, a parking garage, the clubhouse, crowded stadiums), but others lack atmosphere and color. Dialogue always sounds excellent, as does Mychael Dannaís terrific score. The low end provides good reinforcement for the other elements of the mix.
An Audio Description track is also included; English, English SDH, Chinese, Korean, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
Moneyball: Playing the Game (19 minutes) is a standard making-of featurette.
Billy Beane: Reinventing the Game (16 minutes) offers interview clips with Beane and a few people whoíve worked with him.
Three deleted scenes (12 minutes) offer what are essentially extended versions of two scenes (undoubtedly trimmed because they were unnecessarily redundant) and one completely excised bit (undoubtedly cut because it features a character who would be seen at no other point in the movie and served no real purpose in the narrative).
A single blooper (3 minutes) has Pitt struggling to get through a take (laughing to the point of crying).
Anyone who so desires is welcome to Kevin Costner playing catch with his old man or Robert Redfordís slo-mo glory; Iíll gladly stick with this one.