You’ve got to admire what they did to make Moneyball (2011). While personnel shifted, there was always a core of individuals with a history of making dark, thoughtful films. Director Bennett Miller’s previous film was Capote (2005). Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s last film was Inception (2010), being Christopher Nolan’s main DP. The second writer they got was Steven Zaillian who adapted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and wrote Schindler’s List (1993) among others. Then Aaron Sorkin wrote another draft of the film. That’s a solid crew that all got together to do a movie about the business behind baseball. It worked. Six Academy Award nominations, no wins. Not unlike the Oakland A’s in 2002.
This guy wrote a book in the 1980’s about the math behind baseball. In a game dominated by statistics, this guy took up the crazy notion of applying those statistics. But what did he know? He never played baseball in his life. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the GM for the Oakland Athletics. It’s a team in a smaller market and relatively little money behind it. In 2001, the A’s were in the playoffs against the New York Yankees. That series pitted the A’s $40 million budget against the Yankees’ $114.5 million budget. The A’s lost and Billy hates to lose. A new off-season begins and Billy is getting antsy. They lose their three key players, one of them, Johnny Damon, to the Yankees. He talks to his scouts and they talk about the same stuff they always have. This crazy concoction, part accountancy, part alchemy. “He’s got an ugly girlfriend, means no confidence.” “Good face, he looks the part.” “The ball pops off his bat.” He’s sick of it. In a meeting with the Cleveland Indians, he sees a young man there, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a nerd with an economics degree from Yale. Brand speaks a language Beane has been waiting his whole life to hear. Use the statistics of the players that turn into wins that turn into championships. They do it. They pick players at bargain-basement prices that would be all-stars if they were used right. But the Manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), runs the games and he doesn’t like the way Beane picks.
Since I saw The Tree of Life (2011), I’ve wanted to see how good Brad Pitt had to have been in Moneyball to get him the nomination. In a year of pretty weak choices, I can’t say that Pitt was wholly outclassed. He, like everyone in the movie, gave a strong performance with what they were given. When he doesn’t play a nut, he always plays it straight-up and he did again. It’s nothing to his performance in The Tree of Life. Hill got a nomination for Supporting Actor and that’s a little more than he deserved. Moneyball does, however, show that Hill is a real actor that can do more than zany comedy. The one who blew me away in Moneyball was Pitt’s daughter, played by Kerris Dorsey, who did a song with a guitar and was fantastic. Robin Wright is also in the movie, but doesn’t get much screentime. Hoffman is also a little bigger than the role allowed, but it was definitely an asset.
The writing was often quite good. That said, if this is Sorkin, I couldn’t really tell in the dialogue (which would be the first time). It isn’t clever, but it is thoughtful and never struck me as mannered or false. There’s one part where they go from three player posters outside the stadium, to a single poster of the over-the-hill player that people might have heard about. It was a nice little touch to drive home the central premise of the film—no stars, just wins. There are a lot of moments like that in the movie and when you consider the fact that this is a nerdist movie that never lost me for a moment, that’s quite an accomplishment.
A part of the never losing me is in the performances and the writing, but especially in the look of the film. It looks great with deep, rich colors and short, impressionistic clips. This isn’t treated like a typical baseball movie, it’s treated like an indy character drama that found itself with $50 million to play with. They spent it well, I’ll say that.
I don’t want you to run away with the idea that this would be a Best Picture nomination before we had ten open slots. But it was one of the top ten movies of the year and deserved the respect that it got. Real funny, real entertaining, possibly moving if you’re a hopeless baseball romantic. Which you are. Worthy to own.