A film involving baseball is extremely unlikely to make it on my watch list, but this intelligent and strangely melancholy movie, with Brad Pitt in one of his finest performances, was very much worth suspending a prejudice against baseball movies.
I really had no clue what Moneyball was about except that it somehow involved baseball and statistics; these two things were enough to make me give it a hard pass at the cinemas, since I couldn’t think of anything more sleep-inducing. I also had no idea that it’s based on a true story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a failed baseball player who eventually made a transition over into management. In 2001, he’s a general manager of the Oakland Athletics, or the A’s as they’re known, who are not having the greatest time at the start of the movie. They just lost to the New York Yankees, and saw their three best players pinched by the teams with bigger pockets. This constant poaching makes Beane joke bitterly about their underfunded team being “organ donors for the rich”.
Faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding the team on a low budget, Beane becomes intrigued by the theories of a nerdy Yale graduate who sits in one of the business meetings. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) believes that a winning team doesn’t have to be made of expensive individual stars, and that instead it’s more about hiring a combination of players based on key performance statistics. Such players are often undervalued, have easier egos to manage, and are much much cheaper to acquire.
Beane is an instant convert, but Oakland’s group of old-fashioned, grizzled scouts and coaches are predictably aghast at the notion that a computer would do a better job at putting together a winning team than the traditional approach of intuition. The biggest obstacle is the quietly despairing main coach (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who feels that his experience is being insulted, and insists on using the players on the field the way he sees fit. Beane however sticks to his plan with an all-consuming determination, through the objections, ridicule, and the initial dismal string of losses by the new team that could well make him unemployable.
Moneyball doesn’t completely avoid the typical sports movie clichés, such as a scrappy team of underdogs and their heartwarming triumphant moments near the end (which of course worked and made me grin and cheer happily). It is however not a traditional sports movie at all, focusing more on the unromantic side of behind-the-scenes business and politics. We never really get to know the individual players (including baby-faced Chris Pratt in a minor role), who can be dispensed with or traded away like pieces of inventory. Though as a viewer you’re rooting for Beane and his team of overlooked misfits to succeed, it’s also hard not to be aware that you’re essentially rooting for the machines and their cold calculations.
Brad Pitt has rarely been more superb than he’s here, earning himself an Oscar nod together with equally impressive Jonah Hill. His movie-star looks remain, but to me he’s become much more interesting to watch when seasoned with a bit of middle-aged world-weariness. Beane is a lonely man with a failed marriage, haunted by the knowledge that he’s never fulfilled his early bright promise as a baseball player, and so driven by the hatred of losing that he can’t even bear to watch a game in a stadium. In the end though, you could see the movie as a redemptive story of a man who’s given a second chance to leave a mark on the game, even if it’s not in the way he’d envisioned.