Old 09-22-2011, 05:39 PM
Bennett Miller's Moneyball

Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:



Moneyball (2011)

Back in the early 2000s, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, was faced with a tough problem. Using only the small payroll at his disposal, he had to attempt to put together a team that could compete in the big leagues. Now his story is being retold in Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” a film that, at first looked like your typical, uplifting sports film, but thanks to the talent involved, it ends up being something a little more than that.

The film begins in 2001 with Oakland just missing out on a chance to go to the World Series by losing to the Yankees. As their season concludes, Billy (Brad Pitt) finds out that he is going to have to try and replace three key players that are being traded to other teams. The problem is that he doesn’t have much of a budget to work with so he can’t afford any of the supposedly good players that he wants.

During one trading session, he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics who sparks Billy’s interest with his take on players’ actual worth. Not long after, Billy hires him to help find new players for the Athletics. Billy already had a team of older, more experienced people working on the problem, but their way of thinking is that expensive players must be the best. Peter’s method is quite different in that he uses math and stats to discover a player’s true strengths. Using this method, Billy and Peter set out to form what they hope will be Oakland’s next championship team.

There will undoubtedly be many people who are already familiar with this true story, but not being much of a sports follower, I was not and found myself quite drawn into the story. At its core is an interesting contest between how teams were put together before Beane and Brand and how they were assembled after. The old school of thought is represented here by Beane’s staff of older, more experienced scouts who are trying to get players for positions that they need filled. The problem is that they want what they think are the best players for just those key positions, which would cost them a lot of money.

Then Peter comes along and suggests that what they really need to buy are runs and wins, so perhaps what they really need to get are players who would be able to get on base and still play other positions adequately. Using mathematical equations to determine who would be best for their team, Billy and Peter come up with some suggestions that shock the scouts, including some players who have been somewhat shunned from the league just because of silly, physical habits like pitching in a strange manner.

Another interesting contest comes into play when we discover that the manager of the team on the field, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is putting the players where he thinks they will be best and not where Billy and Peter meant for them to be used according to the calculations, again having the old school thought clashing with a new, untested method. When the players are eventually put in their intended places, we see just how well the new method works and that a team really doesn’t need to have a huge budget in order to put together an extraordinary team. Oakland’s 20-game winning streak is certainly a testament to that.

To tell this story, an interesting list of talent was drawn up. Two-time Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt plays Beane as a man making the best out of a desperate situation. It’s a bit of a challenging role, but Pitt plays it wonderfully, never going over the top and always making the character a believable one. Jonah Hill plays his right hand man, Peter Brand, as a low-key character who is at first not particularly comfortable in his new position, which is understandable seeing as how what they were doing had never been done before, but eventually finds his confidence. His performance is likewise believable and well-played. In fact, Pitt’s and Hill’s chemistry together is one of the best features of the film.

Another one of the film’s best features is the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. One of the things I was looking forward to most before seeing the film was what these two amazing writers would come up with when their styles mixed together. Zaillian, who is probably best known for adapting “Schindler’s List,” for which he won an Oscar, tends to write more serious drama like “Gangs of New York,” “Awakenings”, and the upcoming “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Sorkin, who just won an Oscar earlier this year for “The Social Network,” works mostly on dramas as well, but they tend to be a little lighter than what Zaillian does.

Sorkin’s additions to the script can clearly be seen in scenes that include a lot of zippy, fast-paced dialogue, a trait that he tends to use a lot. Strangely, one of the most engaging scenes in “Moneyball” consists simply of Billy and Peter sitting in an office, trying to trade some players for others. The scene is fast-paced and features Pitt and Hill firing dialogue over telephones and to each other. In addition to great dialogue, the screenplay also has a good mixture of drama and comedy that allows the film to flow smoothly, never letting it get too heavy-handed.

The ending itself probably could have used a little work. The structure of the film was a little strange in that it hits a high point with Oakland’s amazing streak of wins and then tapers off in the last 15 minutes or so to a conclusion that’s a bit drawn out. However, this is supposedly how it actually happened, so I suppose there wasn’t much that the writers could do about it.

With its wonderful performances and well-written script, “Moneyball” is one of the better sports movies of recent years. Usually for that to happen, it has to be a movie that involves sports, but where sports are not the main thing the movie is about like “The Blind Side” or “Remember the Titans.” The focus of “Moneyball” is indeed sports, but it’s the interesting conflict between the old ways and newer ways of doing things that make the film particularly interesting even for people who don’t pay much attention to sports. This is a sports movie for everyone. 3.5/4 stars.
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