Most baseball movies, people will be quick to assure you, are not actually about baseball. They’re about courage or character or perseverance or love or something else equally universal and anodyne — the better to appeal to an audience beyond enthusiasts. Moneyball, based on the bestseller by Michael Lewis, joins the tiny handful of baseball films that have the guts to buck this trend. It’s about baseball. More specifically, it’s about statistics, which is sure to make it controversial and perhaps despised. Fans like to mythologize success in baseball as being about courage or character etc. Moneyball is too canny a Hollywood production to entirely rob the sport of a human element, but it nonetheless torches that idea. It’s a whip-smart, tough-minded treatment of the world’s most sentimentalized subject.
Statisticians don’t traffic in certainties. They sift through data and wait for patterns to emerge. Those patterns tell them things that sometimes allow them to make intelligent guesses about other things, but there can always be outliers; randomness that can’t be eliminated entirely. Still, you can try to crunch the numbers and make predictions — and the more data you have, the better you’ll do. And in the long run, you should always beat the people who aren’t looking at the data at all.
Moneyball is about two guys who used this insight to change professional baseball. In 2002, armed with the lowest payroll in the Major Leagues, Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, superb) set out to put together a team that could compete with the New York Yankees, who had more than three times his budget for talent. As he sat there listening to his scouts — grizzled, old-school veterans of the sport — kibbitz about how one potential prospect has a “good jaw” and another a “nice, clean swing,” the absurdity of it struck him: who cares if a player has a “clean swing”? Or an “ugly girlfriend,” which the scouts assure him means the player has a “confidence problem.” This cannot be how you win games, and it certainly cannot be how you win games against teams that can spend you under the table.
In a chance encounter while visiting with the Cleveland Indians, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a lowly assistant who nonetheless wields a peculiar influence over that team’s manager. Peter is a timid, rotund braniac with an economics degree from Yale. He has an idea: everyone is doing baseball wrong. You don’t win games with superstars; you win them with runs. Runs are produced by repeatedly getting on base by whatever means necessary. A player’s tendency to get on base or not can be readily determined by looking at the numbers, which — and this is crucial — no one is doing. They’re all too busy worrying about who has a good jaw or a clean swing or a hot girlfriend; who can hit home runs and make flashy plays on the field. Here, Beane realizes, is an opening for someone willing to do things differently.
Beane hires Peter and has his strategy, which of course meets with fierce resistance from the establishment — including the fans, Beane’s own scouts, and his manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), none of whom can figure out why Beane is dumping what big names the A’s have left in favor of obscure journeyman players and the over-the-hill likes of David Justice. Moneyball vaguely attempts to fit this into the typical underdog sports movie mold — renegade coach retools a ragtag bunch of misfits into a winning team — but inverts it in a fascinating and kind of hilarious way. Beane turns the A’s into a success not by instilling in them the virtues of teamwork, integrity and perseverance, but by ignoring all of that nonsense and doggedly sticking by his and Peter’s calculations. The math is right. It will work. All of you shut up.
Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), the film is impossibly slick and entertaining. Miller and his editor, ultra-veteran Christopher Tellefsen, build a beautiful rhythm that plays off the intricate staccato pacing of the dialogue, co-written by Steven Zaillian and The Social Network‘s Aaron Sorkin. (The latter’s stamp is so unmistakable that I scribbled “Sorkin-esque” in my notebook, not then knowing he was involved.) There’s one scene, in which Beane and Peter engineer an elaborate trade, that Miller, Tellefsen and the screenwriters turn into a bizarrely suspenseful aria of ringing phones, barked shouts, intimidation, and inside-baseball jargon. The baseball scenes have a gleaming, almost otherworldly beauty. And the film is punctuated by some of the loveliest, most elegantly executed flashbacks I’ve seen in a while.
The material’s emphasis on numbers and statistics sounds clinical, but Moneyball‘s genius is the way it turns the cold hard math into an off-kilter, oddly wonderful view of the game. As a character says late in the film, you can crunch all the numbers you like, but “there’s an element of randomness to it.” And the human beings playing and running the sport are that element. Out of nowhere, your unassuming first baseman will hit a key home run. A locker room speech will have just the right effect on a player on just the right day. A fielder will take his eye off the ball and let a blooper drop right in front of him. You can outsmart the game to a point, and only so long as you know something that others don’t. (This is why the Beane’s 2002 success didn’t last.) Then you have to trust the guys on the field.
— Eugene Novikov