Director Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” is the perfect sports movie for these cash-strapped times of efficiency maximization. It's also the best sports movie in a long time, period, as well as honestly inspirational — even though nobody knocks one into the lights, causing showers of sparks to blend in the night sky with the fireworks.
This is not that film. It’s better than that film.
The focus on facts, figures, sabermetrics and cold, hard stats never competes with the human beings batting those stats around in their heads. “Moneyball,” which took years and several false starts to come to fruition, fixes on the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt in a performance sharp enough to match the stealthy marvel of the film supporting that performance.
How Beane budgeted and strategized his way to the playoffs, with the second-lowest payroll in the majors, hinged on buying a motley crew of underdogs who weren’t pretty, or expensive. But they could get on base.
Everything in Beane’s story and in “Moneyball” could’ve been rendered dull or sappy or both by a lesser director. It is, at heart, about a man out to redeem himself. As a middle-class suburban San Diego high schooler, Beane was a hotly pursued star athlete, fielding, among other offers, a joint baseball-football Stanford University scholarship. The New York Mets were also interested in his future. Beane signed with the Mets in 1980, scrapping his college plans. Then the phenom in the making never materialized. Beane’s volatile temper kept messing with his concentration, his results.
Years later Beane found himself in Oakland, presiding as general manager over the A’s and knocking around the clubhouse described in Michael Lewis’s Öexcellent book (also called “Moneyball”) as “the cheapest and least charming real estate in professional baseball.” The team was in pain. The New York Yankees scooped up first baseman Jason Giambi for a seven-year, $120 million contract, among other holes to fill.
Into Beane’s life came Harvard graduate Paul DePodesta. To simplify, probably in a way that will cause heart murmurs among “Baseball Abstracts” fanatics, Beane’s assistant GM believed in statistical analysis and the importance of a player’s on-base percentage, more so than his batting average. Suddenly, at least in Oakland at the start of the 2002 season, traditional scouting reports regarding a player’s viability and personality and appeal were out of favor. Here, Beane hoped, was a way of spread-sheeting a team to relative glory.
The DePodesta equivalent in “Moneyball” is a Yale economics whiz named Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill. Much of the script focuses on the odd-couple relationship between Brand and Beane. Hill does very little acting here, meaning: What he does, he does with a canny sense of hesitancy (he seems perpetually afraid of getting tobacco juice spit into his Ivy League eye) and a pinpoint brand of comic timing. The script by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, with Stan Chervin receiving story credit, layers judicious flashbacks to Beane’s early professional disappointments inside the rest of the story. Robin Wright plays Beane’s ex-wife (the director Spike Jonze appears unbilled as her spacey, easygoing new man). More prominently, Kerris Dorsey Öplays the Beanes’ daughter. Pitt is quite wonderful in these scenes of post-divorce parenthood, making connections where and how he can with a bright, adaptable kid.
Zaillian’s sense of structure dovetails unusually well with Sorkin’s verbal acuity. Offhanded comments such as “If he’s a good hitter, why don’t he hit good?” don’t sound writerly; they sound right. There’s a calm and honest tone to “Moneyball,” so that when Bennett lingers a second on a shot (inside a flashback) of young Beane shaking hands with the Mets recruiter, we catch the look of doubt in Beane’s father’s eyes. As A's manager Art Howe, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who won an Oscar for his performance in “Capote”) keeps his performance even more contained than Hill’s, so that after a tense early meeting with Beane, the only distress signal Howe emits is a little shake of his left hand, rattling his wristwatch.
With “Capote” six years ago, director Miller made his first non-documentary feature. The film established him as a rare and contemplative talent, adept at making interpersonal dynamics and matters of workaday procedure come alive. He’s done it again with “Moneyball,” and Pitt, who executive-produced, has reached a point in his stardom where he’s rightly concerned with becoming the best actor he can be, by working with the most interesting directors out there.
The film lacks a few things. Despite some offhanded outbursts, we never really see the dangerous side to Beane, the demons that messed him up as a player. The coda’s on the sentimental side. The script’s third act may frustrate sports movie fans conditioned to expect a certain kind of wow. But “Moneyball” can’t make more of what the A’s achieved than this. Otherwise it’d be phony.
I love Miller’s straight-ahead, steady-gaze approach to the subject, and to filmmaking. Last year’s Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister, gives the back offices and clubhouse interiors an evocatively cruddy tone. The images have been astutely assembled by editor Christopher Tellefsen, who worked so well with Miller on “Capote.” The results don’t grab; rather, they entice. “Moneyball” is about shedding past selves, and traditions, once they become mere conventions, and Bennett’s sophomore feature is an unconventional winner.
'Moneyball' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language)
Cast: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane); Jonah Hill (Peter Brand); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe); Robin Wright (Sharon); Kerris Dorsey (Casey)
Credits: Directed by Bennett Miller; written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Michael Lewis; produced by Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt. A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 2:13.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun