Baseball is a lot of things to a lot of people; to Oakland A’s draft-bust turned GM, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), baseball is a business. Nowhere is this sentiment better reflected than in Moneyball’s opening title, a comparison of salaries between Beane’s bottom-rung A’s and the dynastic New York Yankees, a team with over three times the market cap of the A’s paltry $40 million. This competitive disadvantage, already abundantly clear in stark black and white, is hammered home moments later when the Yankees stomp the A’s hopes of post-season glory and throw a little salt in the wound by ransacking the A’s roster of their three star players.
With no sign of monetary relief and no way to replace his all-star first baseman, Beane, in a desperate scramble to rebound from the A’s off-season tailspin, brings sabermetrics wunderkind Peter Brand, a quietly nerdy Yale graduate (Jonah Hill), to salvage his seemingly hopeless situation. The way Brand sees it, winning in baseball is contingent solely upon outscoring the other team—a simple matter of mathematics. With this in mind, Beane and Brand go bargain shopping for their “island of misfit toys”, much to the chagrin of the curmudgeonly scouts who recruit based on looks, girlfriends, and star-quality, in an attempt to get the A’s on base as often as possible.
There’s a fascinating use of statistical analysis by Brand to find value in a list of nobodies. The assemblage of the new A’s under the aegis of statistics-based success are among Moneyball’s best moments—each one a glimmer of true filmic greatness, awesomely composed montages of number crunching and recruiting, and highly reminiscent of The Social Network’s code-writing scenes, not least of which is thanks to the punched up screenplays of both films by Aaron Sorkin whose whip-smart dialogue makes for exceptionally captivating popcorn drama.
The aforementioned montages combined with director Bennett Miller’s nail-biting handling of game 20 of “The Streak” see Moneyball at its best, and often the best of the year, but it’s a tone Miller struggles to keep consistently due to Beane’s paralyzing self-doubt outside the office. Moneyball, mistakenly attempting to broaden its appeal, incessantly revisits the relationship between Beane and his pre-teen daughter. Much like Beane’s aimless driving through vacated expanses of parking lot, it down-shifts everything to neutral for five and ten minutes at a time, instantly killing any momentum built in frenzied trade deals and suspenseful ball games. It’s not that the scenes aren’t touching or insightful, it’s that they simply don’t belong in this movie, especially considering Moneyball’s unnecessary 133 minute runtime. There are other flaws to note, such as the completely underutilized talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a one-note role, but none of them cripple Moneyball’s overall appeal.
It’s best not to expect your typical underdog story, or even a lot of baseball for that matter, as Moneyball is strictly business. Like Beane and Brand, they concern themselves only with the numbers, the hirings and firings. Their sole intention as managers of the Oakland A’s is winning not because they are consumed by winning so much as they hate losing in an unfair game. But even their deconstruction of the sport can’t help but be compromised; it’s just too easy to romanticize baseball, something they both come to terms with even after their great experiment. And, like Beane, anyone who sees Moneyball, fan or no, is likely to have the flame rekindled in them.