Friday, November 11, 2011

New Release Review: Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

I don’t think there is any escape from being personal in this review of Moneyball. Whether other people will match my personal response to this unconventional sporting drama is something I am optimistic about but not certain of. I have little to no knowledge about the sport of baseball, and it is possible that my uninformed status resulted in me not recognizing some factual deficiencies in the personnel make-up of the Oakland A’s that some have criticized. I guess it comes down to whether displacement of fact (and I’m just assuming that there is some here) has any impact on how you perceive the story and ultimately enjoy the film. After all, Michael Lewis’ novel, which is adapted for the screen here, is based on true events from the 2002 season. For me, it did not. Throughout the film I was comparing my reading of the game of baseball – and specifically the managerial side of the sport – to my knowledge of basketball and the NBA.

A long time fan of the Philadelphia 76ers and avid follower of the NBA, I know a thing or two about statistics, contracts and salary caps, teams rebuilding to save money, GM’s fighting for their jobs, being stuck with untalented and overpaid players and having to favour team chemistry over bloated egos and star value - topics and themes that pop up throughout Moneyball. Having said that, the NBA is currently in lockout because of such financial disagreements. I accepted Billie Beane’s position because I took his role to be similar to the GM’s in the NBA. This is not to say that knowledge of sports is essential to understanding this film.

The centre of the story is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who are fresh from a postseason elimination in 2001 and are facing the loss of three star players to free agency. Beane attempts to devise a strategy for assembling a competitive team for the 2002 season but struggles to overcome Oakland's limited player budget (compared to the Yankees who have three times more money to spend on players). During a visit to the management of the Cleveland Indians, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics graduate who possesses radical ideas on assessing the value of players through statistical analysis.

Bringing in cheap underappreciated rejects whom Beane’s talent scouts consider flawed – or an “island of misfit toys” as Brand declares – to play key roles in the system, Beane faces opposition from the A’s manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Tension mounts between the two due to Beane’s unorthodox signings and Howe’s adamancy to ignore the new recruits and utilise a traditional style (one that can be explained to the media). With Beane forced to take matters into his own hands, he makes several more changes on the eve of the trade deadline and catapults his team into a record winning streak and title contention.

For me personally, Moneyball is a triumph. I wholeheartedly embraced the philosophies adopted here and got swept away by the extraordinary true story and the fact that the film shied away from the game action and took us into the politics and the risky decision-making of team staff that is often ignored. The tension and the stakes behind the scenes can be just as compelling. There is a rewarding David vs. Goliath tale here that transcends baseball and competing and makes for completely satisfying viewing.

The sharp, witty, comic and effectively informative (without being bogged down by exposition) screenplay from Oscar winners Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) was as impressive as expected. They perfectly balance the story of the team with Beane's personal one (including flashbacks to his career in baseball, and his present relationship with his daughter). But as much as I love Sorkin’s work (especially) I think it is Brad Pitt who makes this film. He lives this role, and completely nails it. Moneyball is full of exceptional moments and others that may feel a little unsatisfying, but I think if one accepts that it is Beane and Brand’s unique philosophy that is essential to this film and not so much the performance of the players it remains a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

I think Moneyball is above all a character study. It is all about Billy Beane, and he is a fascinating character. He doesn’t watch the games, but distracts himself by working out and driving around. When they lose he upturns tables and throws chairs. When the A’s are celebrating their epic win streak, he rejoices privately amongst the gym equipment. Haunted by a decision he made in his youth, by a failed baseball career, and with a dream of winning the last game of the season unfulfilled, Beane is a hardened veteran of the game. He is tired of the internal politics and frustrated that teams buy their victories through their luxury of a high salary budget. Pitt is fantastic. If I were watching this guy at work, without any knowledge of who Brad Pitt was, I would assume he was a league GM. He 'should' find himself a double Oscar nominee next February for both Moneyball and for The Tree of Life.

Endowing his character with odd mannerisms (which includes continuously chewing gum or stuffing food into his mouth), he has this clucky confidence (he’s a quick thinker and fast talker, and you get the sense that he is always two steps ahead of everybody), this evident passion for winning and this lurking but readily subdued frustration. He makes every sequence compelling in one way or another in his attempts to not only turn the A’s into winners but change the game in a direction that better reflects the ‘romanticism’ he personally finds. Jonah Hill, a man often underappreciated, gives a serviceable supporting role as a number wiz who is infected by Billy’s enthusiasm and becomes his protege.

I guess there are a few features of the film to be wary of. The pace is slow and though it is actually similar in style (at times) to The Social Network (also produced by Scott Rudin) the film is nowhere near as snappy and energetic. The scoring and the cinematography aren’t overly memorable while Bennett Miller (directing his first film since Capote, 2005) adopts a reserved approach; at times throwing in archival footage, audio commentary, and names and numbers projected on computer monitors to inform the viewer. This may not appeal to some people, and results in the film feeling dry on occasions, but solely with the intention of establishing the philosophies of the characters, further developing their intelligence, and keeping the viewer informed. Sorkin and Zaillian do a great job, and there are exceptional sequences throughout Moneyball. If there is another weakness, it is the players. Only a couple of them are given extended screen time. If a viewer can accept that this story is about the philosophy that changed the game and not so much the work of the players, it doesn't really make this a weakness at all. It's hard not to be inspired and give a silent cheer inside at key dramatic moments, and I left the cinema thoroughly impressed by this outstanding sporting drama.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. I love personalized reviews. Great read and your enthusiasm here makes me happy. I'm pulling for Pitt to get an Oscar nod for this one, too.

  2. Sometimes it's easier just to relay in writing exactly what you thought - despite the fact that it may be inappropriate in the context of the analysis. If I relate to a film and enjoy it (or don't and hate it) I like people to know why I felt like I did. That may involve revealing a bit about myself, but I'm cool with that. I'm really happy I enjoyed it - I was still riding the buzz today. Thanks for reading, Nick!

  3. As Nick said, nice, personalized review. They especially contain value when one doesn't utilize the approach, time after time.

    I had my fair shaw of flaws with Moneyball - but PItt was excellent and in total the film is compelling.

    Good stuff.

  4. Cheers man. I agree. But I find personalised reviews such a pleasure to write. Pitt was excellent, indeed.