After a painful World Series loss to the financially-superior New York Yankees and faced with losing his three star players to wealthier teams, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) becomes increasingly frustrated that his cash-strapped club cannot compete. While attempting to negotiate some replacements though, he happens across young analyst Peter Brand (Hill) who swears by an innovative and unconventional statistics-based system for rating potential players. Despite strong opposition from all those around them, the pair use this system to rebuild the team, while Beane reflects over his failed playing career…
Even though it’s about a weary has-been and a ragtag bunch of misfits who rise up against the odds after hitting rock bottom, Moneyball isn’t a traditional ‘sports movie’. Wisely restricting the actual sport to a handful of brief, well-chosen moments, we don’t follow the familiar series of big games, but a quietly-intelligent study of what happens behind the scenes when someone attempts to change the game. More of a talky backroom drama, you don’t necessarily have to know anything about baseball to get swept up in the story (which is based on real events and actual people), as it’s more about second chances, the inherent unfairness in modern day sport (IE, big teams pinching all the best players from smaller teams) and the difficulties that come with breaking down barriers to conventional thinking.
Destined to be involved come the awards season, it also comes loaded with impressive pedigree. In the director’s chair, Capote helmer Bennett Miller offers a pleasingly cerebral and soulful take on a usually popcorn-orientated genre, while the script is handled as expertly as you’d expect from writers of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s calibre. Frequently sharp, intermittently witty (in an impressively subtle way) and often poignant (complemented by Mychael Danna’s deep, resonating score), Moneyball might’ve been marketed as a mainstream crowd-pleaser, but it’s also a classy, superior piece which will captivate highbrow viewers. The cast, too, are suitably excellent, with Brad Pitt giving one of the best performances of his career in the lead, Jonah Hill outstanding as the against-type nervous number-cruncher (while still nailing his trademark deadpan delivery) and the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman (who previously starred as Miller’s Capote) as the team’s sceptical manager. Class all-round.
That said, there are one or two frustrating niggles which steal it from fully-satisfying greatness. Whilst Miller’s low-key approach is to be applauded, his relentlessly restrained and unshowy approach is occasionally too sobering and underplayed. More frustratingly, though fans of Sorkin’s work (which, most notably, includes The West Wing) will hear the acclaimed scripter’s distinctive ‘voice’ from time to time, his quirky style feels dialled down and reined in here, while the movie’s rhythm isn’t nearly snappy enough to do justice to many of the witty exchanges. As such, despite what many have claimed, Moneyball doesn’t quite do for baseball what The Social Network did for social networking. Oh, and while there was nothing wrong with Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s humanising daughter, did we need an extended scene of her playing guitar?
Though occasionally too underplayed for its own good, Moneyball is a classy, intelligent affair. More of a backroom drama than a conventional sports movie, it’s a sharp and soulful take on how a sport was changed behind-the-scenes – and not on the pitch.