"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball," admits Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics played, in career-best form, by Brad Pitt in Bennett Millers' Moneyball.This line, from a screenplay by Stephen Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, happens in the home stretch of a film about the push-and-pull between traditional methods of baseball team building and player evaluation, and the experimental methods Beane put into practice beginning in 2002, after a heartbreaking pennant series loss to the Yankees -- a team with a payroll four times the size of Oakland's.
Tired of being beaten and having his players poached by wealthy bigger-market franchises ("We're organ donors for the rich," he complains, with Pitt giving the middle-aged former player a touch of brass tacks anti-establishment swagger reminiscent of his Tyler Durden from Fight Club), Beane hires Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to shake up the A's with the aid of math.
A fictional figure based on Paul Depodesta (Beane's assistant at the A's who graduated to the general manager post at the LA Dodgers, from which he was fired in 2005 by Frank McCourt after a Depodesta-rebuilt team finished the second worst season in L.A. history), Brand is a Yale graduate and disciple of Bill James, the former security guard, writer and current Red Sox employee who essentially invented the advanced analysis of baseball statistic known as sabermetics.
Baseball nerds (like myself), and fans of the Michael Lewis book on which the film is based, might be startled to discover that Moneyball never uses the S-word, nor does the film mention some of its stickiest tenets (the term OPS, the sum of a hitter's on-base and slugging percentages and one sabermetric that is widely used even by moneyball haters, is never uttered in this movie, either). In funneling the theory into a narrative, Moneyball essentially reduces the complicated James doctrine to an economic imperative based on sympathy for outcasts. As Brand puts it, the dream is to win the World Series not with the help of half a dozen rock star jocks, but by assembling "an island of misfit toys" who can be acquired cheaply and coached into winning, largely through a kind of zen patience meant to wear down the defenses of the opposing team.
And so card counters are cast as rebel underdogs, and just in case you missed that point in all the scenes in which Beane fearlessly dresses down ancient scouts and their dusty wisdom, Miller makes sure to shore up Beane's punk cred by stocking his office full of Clash memorabilia. (The filmmaker also casts his supporting roles with non-faces, whose naturalistic performances create a kind of wall of noise reminiscent to adults in Peanuts, against which the film's movie stars -- Pitt, Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as A's field manager Art Howe -- appear superhuman.)
Moneyball takes place less than ten years ago, but given the current state of the how-to-save-baseball debate, it might as well depict the Ruth era. The film waits until its post-narrative on-screen titles to admit the tough truth that the argument in favor of moneyball is still lacking supporting evidence. It didn't work for Depodesta's Dodgers (he's since worked for the Padres and the Mets, both losing teams), and it certainly hasn't worked for the A's, who have never made it to the World Series under Beane's administration and are currently in second-to-last place in the American League West. Its biggest success story, two-time World Series champs the Red Sox, have plenty of payroll to back their moneyball up.
What's remarkable in terms of Miller's movie is how little its limited context seems to matter. In flattening the complexities of this controversial, arguably failed coup, Miller has made not a great baseball movie, but a great movie-movie, a character study wrapped in a sports film that couldn't care less about fulfilling rote sports film mandates. It's not a film about the love of the game; it's a film about the melancholia that goes with loving anything, anyone, and feeling powerless as their savior.
Who's the real romantic -- the old school scouts who brag of their own "intuition," assesing players based on body type, "a good face," and other "crystal ball" bullshit? Or Billy, who loves the game so much he's willing to turn to science in the hopes of changing it for the better? The answer may lie in Moneyball's fetishistic close-ups of spreadsheets on a computer screen -- a lot more exciting than it sounds.
It's those images -- more than the obstinately clinical game play montages, more than the awkward flashbacks and daughter subplot wedged in to give Billy's every professional action personal motivation, and much more than the vintage Sorkin late-inning spoken metaphor connecting the sport's crisises of jaundiced economy and questionable leadership to the same problems rotting America out from within --through which Moneyball most poignantly rescues baseball's cinematic potential. Every set of numbers is its own narrative, every season a tale of tragedy or triumph played out in 162 three-hour parts. The romance and the math go hand in hand.