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Roll the tape: A tubby ballplayer, always uneasy about stealing bases, decides to go for it. He trots and then slides awkwardly into second, safe—yet the crowd is laughing. They’re not, however, cackling at his inelegant achievement. They’re laughing because dude hit a homer and didn’t even know it. He quickly figures it out and bumbles around the bases, grinning like he just won the lottery.
“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) after viewing the footage. The scene comes near the end of Moneyball, after Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, has teetered toward falling out of love with the sport that chewed him up and spit him out as a pro player, then threatened to do it again when he attempted a new, seemingly loony system of recruiting crappy players on a tight budget. To the team’s manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and head scouts, Beane and his out-of-nowhere right-hand man Peter (Jonah Hill) were the villains. Until they became the heroes.
But Moneyball isn’t about the sport as much as it is about challenging a religion. The film opens in 2001, with the A’s losing the first game of the American League playoffs to the infamously much-deeper-pocketed New York Yankees. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) supplies footage that’s distractingly grainy (this is only 10 years ago, after all), but the sentiment is clear. The A’s are devastated. Beane is pissed. And as soon as the offseason wheelings and dealings start, he zeroes in on the team’s owner about their shameful lack of funds. He doesn’t get any more help. “There are rich teams, and there are poor teams,” Beane emphasizes in meetings with scouts. “Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” Nobody has a solution; they just keep pitching players he can’t afford in order to replace the three semi-stars he’s just lost.
That is, until he approaches the Cleveland Indians to haggle. One whisper from a scout who at first seems to know more about Twinkies than trades, and the deal is off. That kid is Peter, and Beane wants to know why he has so much power. After some awkward stammering and insistence that he’s nobody’s nepotism project, Peter reveals why he’s got clout. Armed with an economics degree from Yale, Peter’s figured out a numbers system that reveals how some not-so-desirable players earning bargain-basement salaries can be assembled to form a winning team. Beane hires Peter away immediately. The uproar is immediate and, as the A’s initially losing season wears on, ugly.
Moneyball is based on a true story (although Peter’s character has a different name and background), and was adapted from a Michael Lewis book by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin’s last home run was The Social Network, and Moneyball has a similar ebb and flow. Scenes unfold organically, with genuine conversations taking place instead of quick, too-clever back-and-forths. (The humor is tamped down to sporadic moments of low-key joshing, like when a player who’s learning first base confesses his biggest fear is the ball being hit in his general direction.) Miller deepens the tone by lingering on characters well after others have walked away from an exchange. You don’t watch this film as much as you settle in with it. And if you don’t like sports movies, don’t worry. There isn’t a lot of actual ball played onscreen; the true game is what goes on behind the scenes.
Pitt and Hill are low-key, too, though Pitt’s Beane has more of a quiet intensity—he throws his share of shit when he gets pushed too far—while Peter is just sorta there, almost shellshocked to be so. Beane has a young daughter whom he doesn’t have custody of; during their one visit, the stunned pride that floods Pitt’s face while she sings and plays guitar is unforgettable. So is Beane’s backbone: He fires detractors of his new system and follows it to the letter, even when it means the A’s sink deeper and deeper in the standings. And so Moneyball is more about a man than a game. This film didn’t need an algorithm to be a winner.