Review: Moneyball (2011)


Though films “based on true events” are often painfully formulaic – and so too sports pics, which seldom do justice to the drama of actual on-field events – thanks to the unlikely acting tandem of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, the formula drawn upon by Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is a winning one. Indeed, as an adaption of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction best seller of the same name, it’s also literally about a winning formula, or more accurately, the various statistical formulas collectively known as sabermetrics, a system designed to maximize budgetary efficiency in assembling productive professional baseball franchises.

If that sounds like a bizarre or boring premise for a major motion picture, Pitt and Hill, along with screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, invest the film with humor, humanity, and a propulsive, if familiar, narrative thrust. Ultimately, the formulas themselves are as peripheral to Moneyball as a certain Facebook-spawning, window-scrawled equation was to Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script for The Social Network. At its heart, Moneyball is a tried and true underdog story, albeit one that plays out chiefly in the front office, and less so on the diamond.

Pitt portrays Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, a once-promising prospect who floundered in the big leagues, warming the bench at four clubs over six years before joining the A’s scouting staff. Beane became Assistant GM in 1994, and GM in ’98, leading the A’s to consecutive playoff appearances against the New York Yankees in 2000 and 2001. The latter series is where Miller’s film begins, billing the matchup as a fiscal David vs. Goliath, the small-market A’s $39M payroll vs. the big-spending, $114M Yankees. In the film, as in reality, the A’s not only lose the series, but in the subsequent off-season, three of their marquee free agents. Moneyball is a dramatized account of Beane’s stat-savvy wheeling and dealing, which, in 2002, allowed him to fit ostensibly square pegs into round holes, not only keeping the A’s competitive, but equipping them to set records in the process.

Zaillian and Sorkin also credit much of the team’s success to socially awkward math whiz Peter Brand, played with atypical comic restraint by a still-rotund Jonah Hill. Brand is based on Paul DePodesta, the real-life Harvard economics grad who, as Beane’s assistant, helped the A’s usher in baseball’s sabermetric revolution. That DePodesta asked not to be referenced in the film speaks to the caricatured nature of what became the Peter Brand role, but questions of authenticity aside, Hill is superbly cast as the bookish straight man to Pitt’s hot-headed, hard-bargaining Beane.

Thanks to Sorkin’s snappy dialogue, Moneyball’s scenes of boardroom banter are witty, entertaining affairs, while a memorable sequence of trade deadline telephone tag sees Beane acquire a key relief pitcher at a near-screwball rhythm. Pitt meanwhile, demonstrates deft comedic timing, as well as his more typical dramatic gravitas, playing Beane both as a born winner and a wounded animal, driven to make amends for his damp squib of a playing career. It was that failure, the film posits, that predisposed Beane to embrace statistical analysis and undervalued players, and to repudiate the accepted scouting wisdom that led him to believe he was destined for stardom.

Rather than the A’s vs. the Yankees, it’s Beane’s analytical forward thinking vs. baseball’s intuitive old guard that is Moneyball’s central conflict, and Miller mines it for laughs, as well as for considerable dramatic tension during Oakland’s losing start to the season. Beane’s detractors are given voice by fans and pundits on baseball talk radio, and on the A’s own bench in the form of staunchly traditional field manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, ever-effective, even in an essentially thankless role). The film’s second half, which chronicles the A’s rise to the top of the standings, is more clichéd, employing the inevitable winning-streak montage, and culminating in a regular season game that, though legitimately significant, is presented in floodlit chiaroscuro, as though it were game seven of the World Series.

Like Beane, Miller and his screenwriters aren’t afraid to embrace formula when it works in their favor, and Moneyball’s rousing climax legitimately satisfies, despite the minor manipulations on which it’s premised. (The A’s are a little too hapless in pre-season training, and several talented holdovers from their 2001 roster go entirely unmentioned.) Given Sorkin’s involvement, it’s little surprise that the film echoes The Social Network in taking potentially impenetrable subject matter and delivering a compelling, human account of a paradigm shift, accessible to fans of hardball and Hollywood alike.

75/100 -  Moneyball stays true to its inspirations, delivering a slick, well-acted crowd-pleaser that cribs creatively from the underdog sports forumla.

Julian Carrington

A graduate of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, I haven't let my regrettable decision to drop Cinema Studies 101 deter me from becoming a pretentious, know-it-all film snob.
  • Christopher Misch

    #Moneyball has actually made me regret falling out of love with the game of baseball.