REVIEW: Moneyball

10 10 2011

The sports movie is in a rut, I’ll just go ahead and say it.  When movies like “Warrior” receives almost unanimous acclaim and “The Blind Side” can get a Best Picture nomination, the genre is in need of an influx of creativity and ingenuity.  And what better movie to do that than Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” a movie that is actually about creativity and ingenuity?

Miller, along with screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, pulls off a feat not unlike that accomplished by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s: working within the framework of a failing system, they employ clever cinematic maneuvering and ingenuous thinking to create a fantastic societal and self-examination.  Michael Lewis’ non-fiction tome is about putting the brains back in the business of sports; Miller’s film is about one man trying to find his heart again in sports by using math as a means to achieve his long-sought satisfaction.  It may be that “Moneyball” uses sports only as a backdrop for its deeper, probing questions, something that wouldn’t be entirely uncharacteristic of Sorkin, who just last year won an Oscar for using the rise of Facebook in “The Social Network” as a setting for an exploration of modern power, greed, and friendship.

So while sports fans may be disappointed that “Moneyball” is not a sports movie but rather a movie about sports, Hollywood will no doubt continue to spit out run-of-the-mill, color-by-numbers inspirational movies for them.  Everyone else, on the other hand, can marvel at a movie about athletic competition that doesn’t teach us the hackneyed values of the triumph of individual will over adversity.  While glorifying impressive human achievement makes us feel good, Sorkin doesn’t indulge us in such escapism.  In 2011, we must face the fact that we don’t always win, the system may overpower even the most brilliant of ideas, and satisfaction isn’t just a win or a loss away.

It’s such an Aaron Sorkin move to overlay the personal journey, here of Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, with the larger societal journey.  Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, is forever haunted by the specter of his disappointing pro baseball career.  Hailed as the next superstar by scouts, he turned down a scholarship to play baseball at Stanford only to spend a decade wallowing in major league mediocrity.  With a deep-seeded distrust for the institutional mechanics, Beane enters the system only to disrupt its workings.

He hires Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a pencil-pusher with an economics degree from Yale but very little baseball experience. However, that’s exactly what Beane wants: someone who hasn’t been affected, corrupted, or jaded by the system.  In fact, he wants someone who can be totally objective, helping him make the best team with the least amount of money.  His new theory, named sabermetrics, is based on the belief that winning is not a measure of heart, it’s a measure of who has more runs on the board at the end of the game.  The scouts and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) cry that he’s dehumanizing and desensitizing the game; Beane just calls it budgeting, and it’s just another step towards what appears to be an unreachable bliss.

The role seems like such a strange fit for Pitt, who never seems to take any parts that don’t complement his machismo or make him seem like anything other than the modern Adonis.  Perhaps for those very reasons, his vulnerability is shocking and effectively affecting.  While collaborations with David Fincher have proved to audiences that he can act, “Moneyball” proves that he can act with the best of them.  Sorkin’s script, while slightly lacking in developing Beane’s personal story, provides Pitt with all the opportunities to make the character his own.  We know his story thanks to the screenplay, but we know his thoughts, feelings, and fears thanks to the quiet moments where Pitt gets to show us his vision of Billy Beane.

“It’s not about the money,” says Beane towards the film’s close, “it’s about what the money represents.”  Indeed, while few of us will ever be dealing people like assets and tossing around millions like pocket change, the implications of “Moneyball” run deep and wide.  With Pitt’s emotion, Sorkin’s insight, and Miller’s vision to make a big-budget sports movie with an indie heart, the ball is knocked out of the park.  The fans should scramble for this one.  A- / 



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