Dir. Bennett Miller
Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Kerris Dorsey
Major League Baseball has the most unbalanced playing field of any pro sport. While other leagues have a mixture of big and small cities, they also have salary cap and luxury tax rules that help even the playing field. Baseball has no salary cap whatsoever, allowing teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to pay close to $200 million dollars on their roster, while most teams can't even afford $100 million and many others can't even put together $40 million. One of those teams happen to be the Oakland A's, and their GM Billy Beane's struggles to field a competitive team during the 2002 season is the heart of Moneyball, a funny and smart film about outsiders trying to upset the traditional method of player analysis.
The A's made the playoffs in the 2001 season, but lost a heartbreaking series to the New York Yankees. A's GM Billy Beane was faced with losing three key members from that team who were free agents and getting offers that Beane could not afford to match. Then he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics grad who has mathematical theories about baseball that flew in the face of conventional baseball thinking. With Brand at his side, Beane sought to construct a team out of players that would be cheap because the traditional method of scouting undervalued their true worth according to advanced statistical studies. The film follows the A's rollercoaster 2002 season, the criticism they faced for this new line of thinking, and some of the individual players involved.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. It's not a book that immediately jumps out at you with dramatic potential with its intricate discussion of sabremetrics and economics. However, Aaron Sorkin proved he could take the story of an internet startup and make it fascinating with The Social Network, so it was smart to bring him on board here and punch up the script. Sorkin's script never goes deeply into the precise details of sabremetrics, but it deals with the basics just enough for the audience to understand the debate. What Sorkin's script (aided by sure handed direction of Bennet Miller) does is humanize the story by somehow successfully turning a wealthy GM with the looks of Brad Pitt and his Yale grad sidekick into hard luck underdogs.
One of the ways in which Sorkin does this is by delving a bit into Beane's own history as a player, when he was a can't miss prospect that completely missed. There is also a nice genuine attempt at a story between Beane and his young daughter that provides the right amount of sentiment without going overboard, precisely because it is well scripted and well played by the actors. It helps to have an actor with the natural charisma and likability of Brad Pitt. He has a nice chemistry with Jonah Hill, and Sorkin takes advantage of this by punctuating their scenes with lots of humorous touches. The individual players don't get as much attention as in other baseball movies, but Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt does generate considerable audience support as a former catcher being moved to first base as a key part of Beane's strategy.
Moneyball may not be your standard baseball movie, but it does work in many of the same ways. There is even a "big game" with different stakes than your usual big game, but one that is still incredibly compelling. It avoids many of the dumb cliche's associated with other sports movies, while embracing some of the fun ones (the irascible manager played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is a pretty accurate portrait of the old school method of thinking.) Most importantly, it disproves one of the major complaints of the anti-Moneyball crowd; that the sabremetricians are just geeks who care more about numbers than the passion of the game. In a wonderful scene late in the movie, Beane and Brand watch a lumbering catcher struggle with his fear of running to 2nd base and you can see how much they care about drama and beauty of baseball.