Review: Moneyball (12A)

Never mind the impenetrable US sports jargon, sit back and watch a baseball story that glorifies sharp thinking over gut instincts, writes Alastair Harkness

WITH Moneyball, director Bennett Miller, writers Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian and star Brad Pitt have managed to do that rare thing: make an exhilarating baseball movie that that requires no real love of the game, thanks largely to its ability tap instead into what sport says about America.

Just as the Social Network (also written by Sorkin) was about the clash of the old world with the new, the way money and privilege could be trumped by ruthlessly applied intelligence and opportunism, Moneyball shows how statistical analysis, hard work, out-of-the-box thinking and making do with what you have can challenge a system so warped by cash that it’s not only rotting something people care deeply about, it’s simultaneously perpetuating a comforting myth that everything is A-ok.

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As a metaphor for America in the midst of the economic crisis and the Occupy movement, it couldn’t be more pertinent if it tried. First and foremost, though, the film is a remarkably gripping account of the true story of Billy Beane (Pitt), baseball prodigy turned washed-out player turned general manager of cash-strapped Major League baseball team the Oakland Athletics. Frustrated at the way the major franchises can buy wins by throwing money at the best players, he’s seeking an alternative way to developing a winning squad.

He finds what he thinks might be the answer in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate with a passion for the sport but a statistician’s understanding of it, particularly how it could work more efficiently if teams played to their strengths instead of fallaciously chasing big hitters they can’t afford.

Brand and Beane develop a formula to do just that, but find their methods meeting lots of resistance from the old-timer scouts, most of whom sit around debating the merits of players based on gut instincts, various superstitions and dubious sounding amateur psychology.

All of this makes Moneyball an oddball subject for an inspirational sports movie, given that it’s effectively favouring data-crunching over the folksier, more romantic notion of trusting one’s instincts. And yet the story turns that on its head. Not only is Billy very much following his heart in this endeavour, the system he puts in place brings together a rag-tag-team of individuals already discarded and written off by those so-called experts who profess to feel the sport in their bones.

The film’s great strength is its ability to do this again and again. Like The Fighter, it takes every underdog sports movie cliché in the book and artfully subverts it in a way that gives sports agnostics an understanding and appreciation of the genuine drama that the most fervent fans experience when they’re emotionally invested in their team.

Director Bennet Miller (who made the Oscar-winning Capote) deserves a lot of credit for the judicious way he releases character information and structures the on and off-field drama. But so too does Sorkin. As a writer, he uses language the way good blockbuster filmmakers use special effects: to dazzle the viewer while serving the story.

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Like the tech-talk in The Social Network and policy speak in The West Wing, Moneyball’s impenetrable baseball terminology is presented as a barrage of discordant notes at first, but as your ear becomes attuned to it, it’s transformed into an exposition-burying symphony of real beauty and feeling, so much so that it doesn’t really matter if you never completely understand phrases like “bottom of the ninth” and “getting on base”. The sense of authenticity these things confers upon the movie enhances the emotional drama being played out on screen.

This is also where Brad Pitt helps. From the beginning of his film career, Pitt has seemed like a character actor trapped in a star’s body, smartly interspersing the kind of marquee roles that make women (and men) swoon with more subversive fare (12 Monkeys, Seven, Fight Club, Tree of Life) that stretch and challenge him as a performer.

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Moneyball sees him effortlessly blending these instincts in a way that is thoroughly mesmerising. On the one hand it’s a big, engaging movie star performance, full of natural charisma and charm. On the other it’s so deeply felt, so quietly heartbreaking, that you forget you’re watching Brad Pitt and see instead a bittersweet portrait of a man plagued by anxieties and insecurities as he tries to do the right thing by his team, by himself and by his family.

One scene alone – in which Billy quietly watches his teenage daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey) as she nervously strums a song for him on a guitar – may be the finest thing he’s ever done on screen, largely because he barely does a thing. But that’s the case with the film as a whole. It’s so surprising and subtle and beautifully complex that when Billy says at one “it’s hard not to romanticise baseball,” it’s hard to disagree.

RATING: *****