Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, adapted from Michael Lewis’s game-changing nonfiction best seller, is an inside-baseball story that transcends inside baseball. On one level, it’s a conventional sports-underdog narrative in which Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) hits on a way to make serious contenders out of a small-market team with a fraction of the resources of, say, the Yankees. But the fortunes of the A’s aren’t transformed by the usual formula comeback—a slugger regaining his confidence or a wayward pitcher learning to locate his fastball. Moneyball is the first go-for-it sports film to turn on … spreadsheets. It’s The Bad News Bears for M.B.A.’s.
The movie doesn’t quite come together, but it’s full of smart, cynical talk, and it’s very entertaining. The title itself has a subversive kick, since the businessmen who run the game work hard to keep you from connecting our two great American pastimes, let alone yoking them together into a myth-deflating new word. Moneyball opens in anti-romantic gloom, in 2001, with Beane by himself in the darkened Oakland Coliseum listening to a radio broadcast of his team across the country being beaten in the playoffs by the Yankees. (Beane doesn’t watch games in person—he thinks he’s jinxed.) A title card informs you that the Yanks have almost four times the players’-salary budget of the A’s, and they’re about to flaunt their bankroll again by snatching one of Beane’s stars, Jason Giambi. (The Red Sox take the other, Johnny Damon.) Beane vents to the owner that the A’s are like a farm system for richer teams (or, worse, like organ donors) and pleads, in vain, for more money. Later, he mocks a table of scouts for trying to find substitutes at bargain-basement prices for sluggers like Giambi and Damon instead of thinking outside the batter’s box.
It turns out that Beane has another reason to be bitter about old-timer scouts and their gut instincts: They once broke his heart. Woven through Moneyball is his sad life story: how in high school young Billy (played by Reed Thompson) was persuaded to pass up Stanford by New York Mets scouts, who assured him he had everything it took to be a superstar, and how he struck out—over and over—in the majors. His past, present, and future come together when he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a painfully wonky young Cleveland Indians employee with an economics degree from Yale, who blurts out that there’s “an epidemic failure to understand what is really happening” in the game. Brand is a student of sabermetrics pioneer Bill James, who argues that the most important player stat of all isn’t a batting average but the far less glamorous on-base percentage. And baseball is full of older or injured or otherwise undervalued players with low BAs and high OBPs, who get walked a lot and run up pitch counts and happen to be on base when the slugger hits one out.
Two top-flight screenwriters adapted Lewis’s book: Steven Zaillian, who has a knack for digging a narrative out of a thicket of minutiae, and Aaron Sorkin, who can add the minutiae back and give it a screwball momentum. Miller isn’t a screwball director (the funereal Capote proved that), but the scenes in which the odd couple of Beane and Brand build a team out of castoffs (among them David Justice and Jason Giambi’s party-hearty brother, Jeremy) have an old-fashioned comic hum, and it’s a great moment when Beane infuriates his head scout (a delightfully gruff turn by Ken Medlock) to the point where he has to fire him for insubordination. Phone negotiations with other teams’ G.M.’s are dizzying Ping-Pong matches, with Brand feeding names to Beane, who keeps up an intimidatingly steady patter, hangs up, and then waits, the clock ticking, for his adversary to call back. Hill has never been better than against Pitt’s rapid-fire machismo—blinking, twitching, finally rising to the occasion, a beautiful soul liberated in wonderment from a hapless blob of flesh.
And Pitt? He’s dazzlingly good. He still channels Robert Redford, but it’s the right part to channel, the witty understatement, the mastery of the pause-and-stare to suggest the wheels turning in his head. Pitt doesn’t play against his movie-star handsomeness: He acts like a man who knows he’s handsome and also knows it’s not enough. Miller and cinematographer Wally Pfister light Pitt to bring out the hollows in his eyes, so he bears a resemblance to Benicio Del Toro—soulful with a hint of dissolution and, down the road, decrepitude. It helps. So does Pitt’s tender rapport with Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter, who tapes a song for him that plays in the final scene like the blessing of an angel.