DVD Release Date: January 10, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: September 23, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for strong language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 133 min.
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Robin Wright

“It defies everything we know about baseball.” – Bob Costas

In 2002, the Oakland A’s had their backs against the wall.  A small market team, they were burdened with the lowest payroll in the majors and no more to spend. 

They had to find another way to compete—or, more boldly, they had to find a new way. General Manager Billy Beane did. In the process, he not only changed the fortunes of the A’s but also changed how people think about the sport—and maybe all of sports—forever.

As “sports movies” go, Moneyball defies genre conventions as much as Beane defied baseball’s traditions. It’s about the game of baseball about as much as The Social Network is about Facebook’s Web site (which is to say not much). Rather than your typical on-the-field heroics or off-the-field antics, it’s about a revolution of thought that had existed for more than a century and the man who dared to ask if it was all wrong.

For people who’ve never been that interested in baseball, Moneyball may very well provoke a fascination with the game in a way that no traditional inspiring sports movie ever could. And for all those armchair GM’s out there, this proves to be the ultimate vicarious insider experience.

Devastated by a post-season loss to the Yankees and then losing key players he couldn’t afford, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life) questions everything about the fundamentals of how to compete in an unfair system that favors the richest big-market teams. He then meets Peter Brand (a pseudonym here for the real-life Paul DePodesta), a young staff member in the Cleveland Indians scouting organization who inexplicably sees potential in players that others have written off. 

Peter’s gift isn’t being more keen than veteran scouts; he’s a recent Economics grad from Yale who’s never played baseball in his life. Rather, Peter has developed an intricate mathematical amalgam of information that makes players not only predictable but reveals strengths not seen by common observation. It’s similar to the approach developed twenty years prior by statistician Bill James, but one always seen as fringe thinking as it discounts the vaunted but elusive attribute of “intangibles” by turning player evaluation into an equation.

So amongst the scrubs, no-names and rejects other teams have passed on, Peter’s computations (much more complex than a mere “formula”) tell Billy which low-cost players are worth the risk—even if it means moving them to a position they’ve never played before. Beane embraces the philosophy and is met with universal opposition, not just within his organization but also across the baseball and sports media world. 

Initially unsuccessful, Beane must either concede defeat or double-down. Doing the latter is what makes Beane a true revolutionary; though James had originated the process and Brand (a.k.a. DePodesta) mastered it, it’s Beane alone who has the faith to actually try it without compromise. Peter may be the brains, but Beane has the heart (and guts). The results are staggering—even breaking one seemingly insurmountable record—and forever redefined how players are evaluated, drafted, traded and acquired, and how teams are built.

If the details only sound remotely interesting, it’s the filmmakers that make it all absolutely thrilling. What resonates isn’t so much what happens but how it unfolds. Reputations are on the line, livelihoods at stake, and inevitably the pursuit of the predictable yields unpredictable results. 

With such a profound shift to conventional thinking, one slip up—no matter how minor, or even in the context of previous success—can invalidate the effort in the minds of most, and make the risk all for naught. We feel the pressure for Beane to be perfect, the exaltation when he is, and the pain when he is not. 

Plus, to approach a game so romanticized by its participants, to then turn it into a cold science makes the job of trading, demoting or cutting a player that much more difficult, even soulless. It’s hard to tell someone who’s put his heart into doing everything asked of him that the equations just don’t add up in his favor. As Beane masters the system, some good people are washed up in its wake.

Brad Pitt gives one of his most appealing performances as the charismatic and driven Billy Beane. Pitt’s best when simply being a version of himself rather than trying to effectuate an accent or some heightened trait. He’s a leading man, not a character-actor (despite how often he tries to be), and he’s rarely been better than here. As Peter Brand, Jonah Hill (Megamind) gives one of the more impressive turns of recent memory. In this shy, against-type performance, Hill’s dramatic chops are a revelation; an Academy Award Supporting nomination could be in order. The remaining cast, with its mix of acting veterans and up-and-comers, rounds out an ensemble that universally reveals complexity and depth even in the smallest roles.

The power-writing duo of Oscar-winners Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) adapt author Michael Lewis’ well-researched and detailed book into a script that pops with energy, ideas, wit and insight. An especially good touch is the backstory of Beane’s ill-fated baseball career; it reveals a man who was a victim of the old-school system he sought to revolutionize.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote), taking the reins from Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) who was days away from shooting before the initial production fell apart, provides a stylized but understated tone that visualizes the intricacies of the story well while also exploring the emotional tensions and vulnerabilities of the characters. We’re riveted, and we care. Credit Pitt, too, who as a tenacious producer saw this oft-troubled project through to completion.

This is a compelling effort, often moving but never maudlin, and as smart and honest a crowd-pleaser as you’ll see all year.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: None.
  • Language/Profanity: Occasional but not constant profanities. There are the usual suspects like a--, d---, and several variations of sh--, along with 2 uses of the “f” word and the “d” word that is sexual slang.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: No sex or nudity. Jocks in locker rooms wearing towels, but nothing revealing or risqué.
  • Violence: A character flips a desk and takes a bat to a watercooler.