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Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box

by John Rodat on September 28, 2011

Directed by Bennett Miller

The reason I got to review Moneyball, at all, is that I am almost entirely immune to the appeal of professional baseball. So much so, I tend to tune out when the subject is brought up. In fact, though I am a fan of director Bennett Miller’s previous films, I had no idea that he was even involved with Moneyball until the credits rolled. Nor did I know that Aaron Sorkin, whose work I also admire, was a co-writer (with Steven Zaillian). Somehow, the subject matter worked as a white-noise engine and I remained near-oblivious about the whole project.

Fortunately, my editor got it in his head that it would be more interesting to have a nonbeliever on this one, so I’m able to tell you that Moneyball is one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen.

Nota bene: “one of the best sports movies.” Not “one of the best underdog movies.” It’s easy to confuse the two, as the latter is often trotted out in the jersey of the former. If you’re hoping for Rudy, Hoosiers or, even, The Fighter, you will be surprised—and possibly disappointed. However, if you are willing to take Moneyball on its own terms (terms that include neither championship ring nor love interest), you are offered a delightfully direct bit of unforced but still artful and engrossing storytelling.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the comparatively cash-strapped Oakland Athletics. Though the team has made it to the postseason, they are losing their three star players to free agency and, ultimately, to much richer teams. The organization lumbers on in an attempt to replace these hotshots through the traditional scouting, drafting and trading processes, which Beane—himself a former high-school baseball star—feels are dated and unreliable. A chance encounter with a young, Yale-educated economist working for the Cleveland Indians emboldens Beane to embrace a different model. He hires the statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) away from Cleveland, and they impose an unorthodox—though not entirely unknown—system in Oakland.

A quick note about the real-life system, which is known as “sabermetrics”: It rejects many of the sport’s traditional statistical measures. If you’re into that sort of thing, look it up. It’s pretty fascinating. But, for our purposes, get this: The industry hated it.

In the movie, Beane’s new approach all but guts the standard, often “instinctual” methods of scouting and challenges notions of coaching, as well. Unsurprisingly, it is met with resistance, ridicule and anger. Eventually, of course, it achieves results, and the A’s go on to win a record-breaking 20 consecutive games and make it to the postseason with an incredibly cost-efficient team.

They do not, however, go on to win the World Series. Beane, who is divorced, does not at anytime bed Marissa Tomei or Maggie Gyllenhaal—or anyone else, for that matter. He does not make an impassioned dugout speech (in fact, he superstitiously avoids the stadium on game days, almost altogether). It’s just not that kind of drama.

It’s very well acted: Pitt imbues this “44-year-old with a high school education” with nuanced believability. A few years back, Pitt in this role might have been bluff or flatly jock-y. He continues to grow as an actor, a fact that his celebrity should not obscure. And Jonah Hill is restrained and effective as the inexperienced but insightful Ivy League number cruncher. The direction by Miller is absolutely top-notch: Deliberate use of handheld and of close ups highlight the undercurrent of emotion without ever getting overly self-conscious or mopey. (The emotional tone is nicely reinforced with spare, original music by Mychael Danna).

But what is most amazing to me is that Moneyball is a Hollywood movie about versatility rather than victory, per se. There is a very quick allusion to how the powers-that-be in any field fear change agents, however well-intentioned or well-studied (thanks, Sorkin); and there’s a cute little meta-joke about how baseball can be a metaphor for larger processes. But they are fitted pretty subtly into the fabric of the movie, and they still leave open the discussion of the idea’s ultimate effectiveness: The message of this movie is not, to my way of watching, that the Little Engine can—it’s more that he might have some interesting intel.

As noted in end cards, the biographical Beane has not yet been able to capture a title with these techniques; whereas the much wealthier Red Sox, with whom Beane turned down a position, used them to capture their first in 86 years.

Moneyball was good enough that I remembered that stat.