Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Brad Pitt as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane
Moneyball (2011)
Directed By: Bennett Miller
Written By: Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian
Based on the Book By: Michael Lewis
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour-Hoffman

"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." There's a lot of truth behind that quote, uttered by Brad Pitt in the lead role as Oakland Athletics General Manager, Billy Beane. There's no denying the long love affair that American cinema has had with the sport -- more than any other game it looks and sounds the best on the big screen, from those slow-motion pitches to the sharp crack of a bat. It's a sport filled with long and quiet lulls, punctuated by moments of euphoria and excitement, much like we experience in life.

Adapted from Michael Lewis' 2003 novel Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, director Bennett Miller's film closely examines the 2001-2 season of the down-on-their luck Oakland A's. As Billy (Brad Pitt) explains to his teams scouts, "There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us." Billy is, essentially, completely handicapped by the lowest salary constraint in the big leagues. Where teams like the New York Yankees boast millions of dollars to pick and choose from among the best prospects, the A's have a middling few hundred thousand to spend. When Billy recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major from Harvard, as his new assistant GM, Billy risks alienating his entire staff as he and Peter play a strange numbers game in an attempt to lure cheap, seemingly mediocre players to fill their roster. Billy and Peter are under the assumption that they can assemble a playoff-worthy team under budget by using a computer-generated analysis created by a factory worker named Bill James to draft players. To the majority of scouts and owners, Billy has lost his mind and irresponsibly erases decades worth of how baseball franchises go about forming their teams.

Moneyball is one of the best sports genre movies released in years. It instantly made my top five favourite sports films list (which also includes baseball classics Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and A League of Their Own, along with the underrated soccer gem The Damned United). However, unlike the other films mentioned, Moneyball delves into the behind-the-scenes drama and inner workings of what it takes to build a winning team. There's more drama behind office desks than on the field.

Pitt and Hill as Billy Beane and Peter Brand.
With Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian's sharp dialogue and expert pacing, Moneyball manages to take what, on paper, may read as a dull plot and crafts an inspirational saga about a team of underdogs.

The chemistry between Pitt and Hill is what really drives the fantastic script home. They have an instinctual knack for comedic timing, yet both demonstrate they have the dramatic chops to keep the film grounded. This odd couple carries the weight of the film on their shoulders, with occasional help from an excellent Philip Seymour-Hoffman in the small role of A's manager Art Howe.

This is Pitt's maturest performance to date -- he's subtle and nuanced, even in the lighter comedic moments. Whether spitting tobacco or tossing aside chairs, he's both a loving father and a quick-to-anger former athlete who loves the game of baseball. Billy is the outcast at the centre of a struggling sports franchise and, while all eyes are on him to turn things around quickly, he ultimately becomes the beating heart of the team. He doesn't just want to win, he wants it to mean something.

Moneyball examines the harsh realities that face major league teams when they are unable to take it all the way and the pressures that come with a restless fanbase and hovering owners breathing down your neck. Movies like Moneyball force us to remember that, despite the abundance of riches in professional sports, there are those who really do care -- for love of the game.