Baseball is a favorite muse of poets and storytellers drawn by the game’s rhythms and slow simmer. Though watching it seems idyllic for a lazy summer afternoon, the thwack of a bat and ball connecting signals an eruption of activity.
Similarly, “Moneyball,” a movie that views the sport from an insider’s perspective, warily observes opposing camps as they size one another up before a seismic shift ushers in a new era.
“Moneyball” is the story of the conditions inciting that new era and its birth pains.
The film opens in 2001. After losing their championship bid and small roster of star players, scouts for the Oakland A’s debate the merits of various replacements. During their think-tank sessions, team general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), becomes increasingly irritated as his wizened scouts rate a player’s attractiveness and likability on par with the prospect’s ball-playing skills.
Rather than sage advisers, Beane feels surrounded by a gaggle of clucking hens. Despite this and a small budget that makes signing proven stars difficult, he’s far from defeated.
While attempting to horse trade players, Beane meets Peter Brand, a number cruncher with a new team-casting approach.
Brand’s ideas are cost-effective – so Beane climbs aboard Brand’s horse, determined to take it for a ride.
Played by Jonah Hill, nerdy Brand attempts to hide beneath his cheap sports jacket because he’s most comfortable being invisible. When Beane insists that one of Brand’s duties as Beane’s assistant is to inform players they’ve been cut, the uncertain rookie is speechless.
Filmed with a minimum of fanfare by director Bennett Miller, the movie provides many opportunities to understand Brand’s rating system. Rather than rely on instinct, he uses statistics to predict a player’s odds of getting on base. Beane, once a promising player who failed to pan out in the majors, agrees that recruiting based upon little more than a player’s perceived talent, is both risky and expensive.
Pitt easily slips into the attitude of an ambitious man failing time and again to achieve his goals. Despite an economy of movement and dialog, he projects the discontented personality lurking behind Beane’s seemingly confident swagger.
Philip Seymour Hoffman once again demonstrates his chameleon-like persona in the role of Art Howe, the A’s curmudgeonly team manager. Unwilling to hang his baseball cap on Beane’s untried theories, Howe becomes the obstacle threatening to derail Brand’s scientific approach.
Though technically a baseball film, “Moneyball” is actually about outplaying your opposition while sticking to your guns. Doing either of these is difficult enough, but doing both when an entire institution is against you, is nothing short of heroic.