What wins baseball games? According to Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller, it’s whoever can get onto first base. That’s it. Looking for expensive star players — men with athletic flash and power — won’t cut it for a team like the Oakland Athletics, which doesn’t have the budget to compete with iconic outfits like the Yankees or the Red Sox. As the film starts, the A’s are about to lose three major players to New York and Boston. The team’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) listens to his scouts talk about possible replacements — this guy’s “tools,” that guy’s arm. Beane thinks this is beside the point, but he doesn’t quite know how, yet. A chance meeting with Cleveland Indians bean-counter (and composite character) Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) lifts the veil from Beane’s eyes. He becomes obsessed with going after cheaper players who can get onto first base. That’s it.
This is all laid out simply enough for us sports illiterates to understand and appreciate. Moneyball is, in part, a David and Goliath story: the scrabbling A’s against the teams with fat checkbooks for shiny players. As it happens, a winning team needs neither — just good craft backed by science, the number-crunching of sabermetric analysis. I have a friend who’s both an accountant and a baseball fan, and Moneyball would probably be his new all-time favorite movie if it showed a little more of the statistical elbow grease involved in actually sussing out what a player can offer a team. The movie glides over it, focusing on the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza team of Beane and Brand. The windmill Beane tilts at is the institutionalized, hidebound methods that have “always worked,” except for when they don’t. Sabermetrics might not work all the time either, but at least they veer closer to the goal of winning a game than to star-fucking.
Director Bennett Miller has a flat, journalistic approach, which didn’t work at all for me in his previous film, Capote, which deserved more style. But not only does it work for this material, it’s true to it. It’s meat and potatoes, no flash, and the 47-year-old Brad Pitt is photographed to bring out the sags and wrinkles in that former baby face. There’s no romance to the movie, no fantasy, just men in smelly drab rooms worrying about losing both the game and their jobs. The game itself is shown glancingly or in pixellated video footage — there’s no big win that everything hinges on; the closest we get is the suspense (for those who weren’t paying attention back in 2002) over whether the A’s will break the record of nineteen consecutive wins. But even this doesn’t matter: as Beane says, the game that matters is the last one. Nobody but baseball wonks remembers the rest.
Moneyball is a fine, strong, adult movie, and its theme can easily apply to any number of other walks of life. Essentially, it’s about the friction between the monks slouching over calculators and the generous bellies (like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s manager Art Howe) full of instinct and intuition. In the end, as in life, neither comes out definitively on top. The dialogue (by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) is fast, cynical, but workmanlike — this is a culture of men who don’t talk to hear themselves talk. (Women barely exist here, though Beane’s musically gifted daughter, played by the appealing Kerris Dorsey, indicates why Beane isn’t in a rush to leave Oakland.) For a movie about literal game-changers, Moneyball doesn’t have the cold dazzle of something like The Social Network (to which it has been compared), but it doesn’t need it; indeed, I enjoyed Moneyball more. It’s not clever, it doesn’t traffic in literary symbols. It’s about grown-ups and what they do for a living. This sort of thing is not currently in abundance at the multiplex.