Moneyball is that rarest of rare things: It is a baseball movie about baseball.
Sure, it's got all the tropes of every classic baseball movie—the underdog team with a ragtag bunch of players and a quirky man in charge—but Moneyball isn't about a team struggling to find its footing and somehow improbably ending up in a championship game while an aging player finds love and/or redemption.
In fact, the film is hardly concerned with redemption at all. It's not a feel-bad flick, exactly—at the screening I attended, the audience burst into applause at the end—but it doesn't tug at your heartstrings like the last film adaptation of a Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side.
No, the heart of Moneyball is the heart of modern baseball: statistics. (Well, that, and Brad Pitt's smile.)
Wait, you say, the heart of baseball is heart! It's about gut feelings and scrappiness and moxie! That's what every baseball picture has taught us, from Damn Yankees to The Natural to Major League to that one with Drew Barrymore and Kevin Youkilis—I mean, Jimmy Fallon. Oh, yeah, Fever Pitch.
But if Billy Beane had anything to say about it, he'd can all that claptrap just like he unceremoniously cans a couple of players with low OBPs.
If OBP—on-base percentage—means nothing to you, welcome to the world of sabermetrics, created by pioneering statistician Bill James back in the 1970s. Baseball geeks had been paying attention to James' work for years, but it wasn't until Lewis wrote about his influence on Oakland A's general manager Beane in 2003 that the general public caught on. (It also didn't hurt that the Red Sox hired James that same year and won their first World Series since 1918 the next.)
The film Moneyball hews surprisingly close to the book, making it the first baseball movie ever that's more about the front office than what happens on the field. Brad Pitt plays the charismatic Beane as he wheels and deals his way through the A's 2002 season, cursing out superagent Scott Boras, making a trade for Ricardo Rincon on the trade deadline, fighting with his scouts and his manager Art Howe (a great, if underused, Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
In the film's narrative, Beane discovers sabermetrics from his assistant Peter Brand, a character based on Beane's real-life former assistant, Paul DePodesta, who's now with the Mets. (In actuality, Beane had been using sabermetrics for years before the 2002 season.)
"It's unbelievable how much you don't know about the game you've been playing all your life," Beane says in a voiceover at the beginning of the film. Brand, played by Jonah Hill, is a character not too different from the one Joshua Malina played on Aaron Sorkin's late, great Sports Night, the geeky Jeremy Goodwin. (Since Sorkin cowrote the Moneyball script, that's no surprise.)
Brand and Beane's growing friendship is the closest thing the movie has to a romance; the scene where they deal for Rincon is nothing short of spectacular, filled with trademark Sorkin rapid-fire delivery.
But for a Sorkin script, there's also a lot of silence. In fact, Moneyball is one of the quietest movies I've seen in years. A sparse and limited musical score swells now and again, but mostly, when someone is not talking, there is silence.
The silence gives Pitt a lot of time to act, which he does in fine form. It's a classic Pitt performance, one that you've partially seen before, but he convincingly inhabits the body of a former baseball player in a way Kevin Costner never did. The movie belongs to Pitt, and he makes the most of it.
Of course, it was Pitt who pushed on with the project after the first attempt to make a movie out of Lewis' book failed. That version was to have been directed by Steven Soderbergh, with a completely bizarre and brilliant screenplay. But while this version of Moneyball follows a more conventional narrative, director Bennett Miller has still made something closer to an art film than a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. I even found myself wondering if anyone who doesn't like baseball will like the movie.
Although the crowd at my screening laughed loudly, I didn't find Moneyball to be as funny as it thinks it is. But my only major problem with the film was the amount of product placement—apropos for the sports world, I suppose, but the sheer number of brands and logos in certain scenes distracted from the otherwise gorgeous visual narrative. Has the grass on a baseball field ever looked so green? Has Fenway Park ever looked less shabby?
"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" Beane asks Brand near the end of the movie. It's a good question. Moneyball may not be your typical baseball film—the 2002 season ended for the A's in the first round of the playoffs, and Beane has still yet to make it a World Series, much less win one. But for a movie about statistics, it sure has—dare I say it—a lot of heart.