It’s a real accomplishment when a film is able to hook an audience while depicting a very specific and potentially alienating subject matter. I have no real interest or knowledge in American baseball, and was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to understand the world or empathise with the characters. In the hands of a lesser director this could have easily happened, but Miller has managed to create a gritty and enthralling experience which had me genuinely hooked. “Moneyball” is based on the true story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who, alongside young Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) compiled a new team following the loss at the world series and the team’s best three players being bought out by bigger, richer teams. The selection of this new team is based on selecting players with a statistical, saber-metric approach which flew in the face of traditional scouting methods and inevitably leading Oakland to their record breaking and historic 20 game winning streak and changing the landscape of baseball forever.
The tension and excitement of this film doesn’t come from, as I anticipated, lengthy and intense baseball matches where the audience can participate in the natural atmosphere generated by the crowds and the intensity that accompanies professional sport. Instead, the film is charged by the sharp and biting conversations that occur largely in the pokey offices of the general managers and scouts rather than the stadiums, the ingenious screenplay coming from screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian. The game of baseball isn’t even a primary character in this film; its portrayed the way the scouts and managers see it, as a business – the players aren’t selected for their talent or as individuals, but rather as commodities chosen purely by algorithms.
Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are an unlikely but surprisingly likeable duo and have sterling chemistry on screen, again in a completely different manner to what I was expecting. Pitt has been cast well as Billy Beane, he is bitter and determined to outrun the failures of his past, and there were some interesting moments where Beane questions his successes and what they really mean. Pitt plays Beane in a way which I initially perceived as detached and somewhat one-noted, but I think this was intentional; Beane is a talent scout, and as such his entire life is about concealing his emotions and making tough decisions isolated from raw human connection. I usually don’t enjoy cutesie family stuff in movies like this, but the scenes with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) are actually handled fairly well and I think allowed for Pitt to showcase some vulnerability and highlights the complexity with which he portrays Beane in the rest of the film. And as for Jonah Hill, this was the understated and intelligent performance which he needed to propel himself out of his “Superbad” type casting and establish himself as a seriously impressive dramatic actor. He has some funny moments throughout the film, but they’re subtle and quietly delivered rather than in Hill’s typical loud and brash style. There are also some genuinely touching moments between the two leads; the two men aren’t quite friends, but its obvious that they care for and respect each other, and Jonah does well in one of the final scenes demonstrating that.
I do think there were some missed opportunities though, particularly with regard to the supporting actors – Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Chris Pratt comprise some of the star studded cast and I felt like they were largely wasted, Hoffman in particular. I was also a little disappointed that the film decided to showcase the new team’s road to success through a montage of Beane and Brand coaching the players and hi-5ing their way to the team beginning to win ball games. If these players were chosen based purely on statistics, why do they need to be polished and honed on their technique to a perky pop number for the team to actually succeed?
Bennet Miller’s “Moneyball” is all about defying convention and undertaking unorthodox practices in the pursuit of greatness. In a strange way, the true story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics baseball team reflects the unique nature of the film as a property itself; the performances are understated and seem to play against the actor’s calling cards, the plot doesn’t follow the typical sporting team movie ebbs and flows, the central characters aren’t the players on the team but the general managers behind the scenes, and most strangely of all, Miller has been able to turn a film which is essentially about statistics and projections into something which is genuinely electrifying.
By Jock Lehman