It’s rare to see a sports movie with so few montages, racial stereotypes, and not one Motown song on its soundtrack. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is the thrilling and candid exception to this tired and true sports film equation.
Directed by Oscar nominated director Bennett Miller, and written by the masters of adaptation Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, (both Oscar winners in their own rights), Moneyball tells the true story of the storybook 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team. Brad Pitt plays A’s general manager Billy Beane, a charismatic, rude, fast-talking former player who’s sick of seeing big spending teams, like the Yankees, poach their talent and rob them of their title. Beane’s been dealt another minimal salary budget and sees little chance of turning their luck around in the ’02 season.
But when Beane meets Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), he’s told of a new strategy that just might change the economic injustices of America’s favorite passtime. Brand is peddling the ‘moneyball’ formula, one that relies on sabermetric analysis of the player’s individual statistics: baseball by the numbers, if you will. Beane hires Brand and immediately enacts the moneyball plan, ruffling a few feathers along the way, including those of Athletics manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Beane, already juggling the worries of single parenthood, must push against the skepticism and the odds in order to change the logistics of American baseball forever.
Moneyball might seem like an odd choice for Bennett Miller, Oscar nominated director of the relentless and cruelly powerful Capote. Still, without Miller’s unsentimental, bleak lens and without Zaillian and Sorkin’s unassuming and raw screenplay, Moneyball could have easily fallen into the unremarkable status quo of so many sports movies, one that is profusely littered with adversity narratives of racism and the love of the game. It is within Moneyball’s restraint that it distinguishes itself: Miller’s restraint of too many glossy close-ups of Pitt’s alarmingly perfect bone structure, Zaillian’s restraint in overtly sentimentalizing the film’s father/daughter relationship, and in Sorkin’s restraint in word count (seriously, see the opening scene of The Social Network).
It also doesn’t hurt that there is plenty of appealing talent in Moneyball to execute the creative team’s modest, yet original vision. Brad Pitt is as cocky and explosive in personality and temper as is necessary to fill out Beane’s extensive muscles. Oddly enough, his character in Moneyball is similar to that which he played in The Tree of Life, (although there are no dinosaurs or solar systems in this film). Jonah Hill is authentically kind, insecure, and modestly brainy. The camera likes and roots for him, no matter what he weighs.
The only acting pity in this film falls with Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who under Miller’s past direction in Capote was successful to the point of a Best Actor win at The Academy Awards. In Moneyball, Hoffman’s Art Howe is powerfully frustrated, but ultimately underused. It seems Oscar treason to have that much incredible talent and to waste it on a few minimal scenes in which Pitt’s pecks draw most of the focus.
As far as its Oscar future goes, I can easily see the Academy turning up their pointed, lovely, pretentious, little noses at a sports film. There just might not be enough heroin abuse, molestation, or grainy close-ups to make Moneyball a sports movie worth their time. However, the talent on both sides of the lens might be too tempting too pass up, especially if a nomination or two means Pitt brings his pouty She-Wolf to the telecast. I personally feel that Pitt’s performance as Father in The Tree of Life is more deserving and will edge out his performance as Beane in the category of Best Actor. I could see Bennett Miller receiving a nod for Best Director, but ultimately feel he’s in danger of being edged out by the more soulful directorial performances of the year, such as Terrence Malick’s or Michel Hazanavicius’s. The best bet for a nomination for Moneyball ultimately falls in the Best Adapted Screenplay category with the unbeatable combination of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. After all, it is within its stellar script that Moneyball’s success begins and ends.
What did you think of Moneyball? Did you want more Motown or Brad Pitt peck shots? Drop me a line in the comments section.