Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling book of the same name, is another one of those feel good sports movies about the drama of competition and the rewards that great sacrifice can bring. Except not really. Actually, Moneyball doesn’t really make you feel that good. And it’s not really even about sports. It’s about creativity and adaptation. It’s about having a bold vision and then following that vision until the end. Of course, that said, Moneyball is still the most exciting sports movie I’ve seen since Friday Night Lights.
In a way, Moneyball is a spiritual sequel to last year’s great Social Network. Not only because Aaron Sorkin wrote both screenplays (Screenplays that Sorkin may win back to back Oscars with), but because they are about recent events that shook how we view our culture. While Social Network is about creative ownership and how we interact with one another in the twenty-first century, Moneyball is about adaptability and how creative, critical thinking can redefine a way of doing business.
The basic plot is this–Billy Beane (in one of Brad Pitt’s most believable roles) is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. They have a tenth of the budget of the New York Yankees. He has just lost his best three players, and he has one season to save his job and the reputation of the team. At first, Beane counts on his scouts’ old way of finding athletes to help find replacements for his top players. However, Beane finds out quickly that the way scouts find recruits feels more like a beauty contest than a search for raw athletic talent.
This is where Peter Brand comes in. Brand, played here by Jonah Hill in the absolute best, most subdued performance of his career, is an economics major from Yale who has created a formula for finding the most undervalued (i.e. cheapest) players in professional baseball, and using their abilities to get runs for the advantage of the team. At first, Brand’s theories are labeled as ideological and naive. Like Mark Zuckerberg, Brand is young, brilliant, and totally misunderstood by the veterans surrounding him. However, Billy Beane is desperate for some new ideas, and he, much to the irritation of his peers, puts his full confidence in Brand’s ideas. What results is the greatest winning streak in professional baseball history.
The film, directed by Capote‘s Bennet Miller, somehow makes guys sitting around talking the most exhilarating piece of filmmaking I’ve seen all year. The performances are understated and nuanced, allowing the audience to understand these men as a strange combination of professional gambler and businessman. Billy Beane is not played as a crusading genius, but instead as a broken, hopeless loner searching for a way to keep his job. When he isn’t sitting quietly in his office, he is erupting in rage at whatever object he has around. Beane is terrified by Baseball, by his team, by his own ideas, and by Peter Brand’s youth.
Brand, in turn, is terrified of being wrong. Although his ideas seem to be sound mathematically, he has a hard time feeling confident that the formula has a real-world application. This fear is amplified when the team, in the beginning of the season, has trouble finding its footing under the management of Art Howe, played by a thankless Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unlike Jesse Eisenberg’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, Hill plays Peter Brand with with a completely opposite fault. He cares too much about those around him. He doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, and by empathizing too much with others, he has a hard time committing completely to his unorthodox ideas. Hill plays the role with a sort of hesitant politeness. He is quiet, always saying please and thank you, and is constantly moving out of other people’s ways. The Jonah Hill you have come to love (or in the case of most people, come to hate) has made a total personality transformation for this film. His voice never rises above a whisper.
However, despite the excellent Sorkin screenplay and the excellent performances, Moneyball is truly Bennet Miller’s film. From the opening shot of the film, it becomes quite clear that we are in the hands of a masterful filmmaker. The film is shot with a steady hand, only utilizing camera movement when it is of the utmost importance. The visual style, in its total lack of dynamic movement, is directly contrasted by the film’s amazing use of sound.
There are hundreds of voices in Moneyball. At any one time, the voices of several sportscasters can be heard on the film’s soundtrack. From the opening shot, the film is narrated by the voices of Baseball games. Voices act as the Greek Chorus here. In every major scene, over twenty voices speaking simultaneously can be heard over the somber image of Brad Pitt’s face as he runs on a treadmill, listens to the radio, paces in his office. The voices represent the world’s opposition of Billy Beane’s ideas, and their omnipresence in the film lend to its unbelievable suspense.
Moneyball is an excellent film and I suggest you go see it as soon as possible. I challenge any of you to find a more compelling sequence in any film this year than “The Streak” sequence in the final act of the film.