Moneyball is a baseball movie that takes place almost entirely off the field, with more footage of spreadsheets than curve balls, and a climax involving a job offer that upstages an actual late-inning home run. Yet screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin not only have us caring about Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the “real-life” general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and his fictional sidekick, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), they have us rooting for trades involving players we never even see onscreen. The old adage about the vagaries of baseball attributed to Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings,” still applies here, but the fat lady has morphed into Beane’s daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), and her song, an expression of adolescent angst with a sly reference to “the Show,” sums up the movie’s iconoclastic take on the baseball genre as well as Beane’s unorthodox approach to the game itself.
Based on the bestselling nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball recreates the desperate year Beane transformed baseball, and all of professional sport, by embracing sabermetrics, a method of calculating the value of players by minutely analyzing data of their performance. Beane himself was a highly touted prospect who signed with the Mets as a teenager but never lived up to his potential, playing six seasons as a reserve for four teams. He quit to become a scout and worked his way up through the small-market A’s organization by thinking outside the batter’s box. To oversimplify, Beane assembled cost-effective teams able to compete with far-richer franchises by identifying and buying undervalued players much like brokers do with stocks. Though the A’s under Beane have not won a World Series, they have reached the playoffs numerous times, including the 2002 season depicted in the film.
That season was memorable for many reasons. The A’s had had their roster raided the previous year, the team’s all-star line-up bought out by deep-pocket competitors. Beane, struggling to find substitutes he could afford, instead stumbled upon Paul DePodesta, a colleague with the Cleveland Indians who had studied economics at Harvard and was a convert to sabermetrics. Beane hired away DePodesta and the two built a new squad that, after a rocky start, went on to win 103 games (a great season for any team) and break the American League record for consecutive wins with no-name players nobody else wanted.
Writers Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Sorkin (The Social Network), along with director Bennett Miller (Capote), decided to create a fictional stand-in for DePodesta, in part because Beane was influenced by numerous other analysts, and because DePodesta, who now works for the Mets, requested that he be written out of the script (according to a report in The Wall Street Journal). The character Peter Brand is more an accommodation than outright invention, however; nicknamed “Google Boy” by the A’s staff in the film, Brand basically acts as a dramatic foil, the nerdy genius shoring up Beane’s macho visionary.
Therein lies the strength and weakness of this too-long but always amicable movie. Pitt delivers a nuanced performance as a fierce competitor struggling to shed the stigma of past failures, which include a divorce as well as his lackluster stint as a journeyman outfielder, but he’s simply too good to be true. Moneyball’s Beane is driven but not ruthless, he’s a devoted father and sympathetic boss, and, most of all, he’s a straight shooter, qualities that may well apply to the real Beane (who, coincidentally, looks a little like Pitt) but surely never so singularly. Determined to play out the classic underdog storyline, Moneyball consequently depicts Beane as the nicest guy who ever knocked over a water cooler, and Brand the sweetest and most devoted Sancho Panza a Don Quixote could want.
On the other hand, Moneyball is eminently enjoyable and, speaking of improbable triumphs, a tour de force of screenwriting. Zaillian wrote the original script, which was radically reshaped by original director Steven Soderbergh until Sony stopped production and called in Miller and Sorkin. If the film that resulted errs on the side of hagiography, the filmmaking itself is superb. Dramatizing statistical analysis ain’t easy, but the final team that fielded Moneyball should get their movie into the awards playoffs, if not to the Oscar podium.