‘Moneyball’: Wonky winners

September 19, 2011

Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” was a sports thriller disguised as a nonfiction volume about statistics wonks. And Bennett Miller’s film of Thomas’ book manages to be wonky and fun at the same time.

Indeed, it’s one of the most entertaining sports movies in ages, mostly because it’s not about winning the big game. Instead of focusing on an athlete trying to fulfill a dream or earn redemption, it’s about a philosophy, a thought process, a way of living. It also happens to be both exciting and quite funny at the same time.

That’s thanks to a beautifully adapted script, which is credited to a pair of Oscar winners: Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. While they obviously didn’t collaborate, they apparently both made contributions that were cohesive and compatible enough to blend into this finished product.

But you also have to give a big share of that credit to director Bennett Miller, who has made another dramatic film based on real-life events (as he did with “Capote”) and given it a shape, a tone and a set of performances that render it recognizably human and compellingly intelligent at the same time.

At the center of the story is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a one-time baseball wunderkind whose promise as a prospect was never fulfilled as a player. As the film begins, it’s 2002 and Beane is the general manager of the perennially basement-dwelling Oakland Athletics. Beane has somehow managed to find budding superstars to take the team to the play-offs, though not the World Series.

But the stars – Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen – have bailed out for bigger money elsewhere. And Beane doesn’t have the funds to compete to keep them. As the team’s owner tells him, Oakland is a small-market team with a small-market payroll, unable to compete with the rich guys in Boston and New York. Find another way to win, he is told.

On a visit to Cleveland to talk trade possibilities with their executives, Beane notices a nebbishy young junior executive whispering to his boss about each player Beane expresses an interest in – at which point Beane’s inquiry is turned down. So he tracks the youngster to his cubicle in the Indians’ office and tries to pick his brain.

The junior exec is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is fresh out of Harvard with a degree in economics and a head full of formulas for valuing players. While the Indians pay his salary, they don’t listen to many of his suggestions – so Beane hires him.

What Brand (based on real-life baseball exec Paul DePodesta) brings to Oakland is a new way of looking at players’ skills, based on statistics teased out of the endless morass of baseball’s fascination with numbers by the statistician Bill James. Called sabermetrics, these analyses don’t just look at obvious numbers like batting average, stolen bases and number of home runs – it looks at a more recent innovation, like late-inning pressure situations and the blend of on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

In other words, as Brand tells Beane, he shouldn’t look to buy big names; he should look to buy wins. When Beane looks to replace Giambi and Damon, he shouldn’t look for players with similar batting averages or runs batted in (which he can’t afford anyway) but players who score a similar number of runs. And, as Brand points out, there are a lot of players who are undervalued by the baseball establishment because they don’t conform to conventional norms, even though they get on base with greater regularity than some of the superstars.

Beane buys into this new way of thinking and begins constructing a team out of unwanted players, much to the chagrin of his scouting staff and, particularly, his manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). They fight him on his new approach; Howe even refuses to start the players that Beane has brought in because he doesn’t believe that Beane knows what he’s talking about.

Pitt plays Beane as determined and, while not willful, absolutely convinced of the rightness of his approach. Even as Oakland goes into an early-season tailspin (because Howe won’t follow Beane’s playbook), Beane keeps his cool and does what he has to – including trading a rookie sensation who is sure to be an all-star – to force Howe’s hand. Pitt brings a clear-eyed enthusiasm to the role, playing Beane as a new kind of baseball thinker. His Beane is someone who wants to use all the tools at his disposal, instead of relying on conventional baseball wisdom and the gut instincts of aging scouts, who have done things the same way for 50 years.

Pitt is the hot white light at the center of the film – but Hill comes into view just often enough to steal every scene he’s in. A skilled comic actor, Hill low-keys it here, with a deadpan wit that reflects both the character’s intelligence and the fact that he’s nervous about being so influential in a game he obviously takes seriously and feels a little cowed by.

Miller keeps his focus on Pitt as Beane, a divorced dad who has to steal time to be with his daughter. The daughter, in turn, worries about all the TV and Internet reports that focus on the precariousness of her father’s job. Yet Miller is not above a little big-game excitement, as the hapless A’s go on a tear that suddenly has them in striking distance of the major league record for consecutive wins.

But, as noted, this isn’t a big-game movie. It’s a movie about character, about staying true to principles. Even so, “Moneyball” is as much fun as a baseball movie ought to be but rarely is.

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