This is something that American men are never supposed to admit, but here goes — I don’t care about sports. I never followed a team, I’ve never cared who won the Super Bowl or the World Series, and I can count on one hand the number of games I’ve watched from start to finish on television.
So it’s really saying something that I was riveted by “Moneyball.” And yes, it’s set in the world of pro baseball, exploring how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane subverted the dominant paradigm by assembling a team of inexpensive, non-flashy players who could make it to base rather than spend millions on celebrity hot-shot ballers who might or might not deliver on the field.
But really, “Moneyball” is about throwing out the established conventions of doing business and trying something new. So it could be about the iPod or the Obama 2008 campaign or the Fox network’s decision to air new episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210” during summer rerun season.
This isn’t a sports story, it’s a tale of bold visionaries, so it’s a perfect follow-up to “The Social Network” for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, collaborating here with the equally acclaimed Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” the upcoming “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Baseball fans will, presumably, enjoy a peek behind the curtain of the 2002 season, but you don’t need to know a bunt from a sacrifice fly to enjoy the movie, any more than you needed to write HTML code to follow “Social Network.”
“Moneyball” begins with Beane’s disappointment at the end of the 2001 season — not only do the much-better-funded New York Yankees knock the A’s out of the playoffs, but Oakland is also about to lose its star players (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen) to teams that can offer them higher salaries.
Attempting to replace these stars with a minimal budget, Beane visits the Cleveland Indians head office and finds some unexpected talent: Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a number-cruncher who graduated from Yale with an economics degree and who has formulated an entirely different way of evaluating players. Brand doesn’t care about their confidence or their handsomeness or their fielding skills or their throwing arms — everything boils down to whether or not they can get on base, even if it’s by walking. The more players on base, the logic goes, the more runs scored and the more games won.
The scouts for the A’s refuse to believe that the process can be boiled down to statistics, but Beane believes in Peter’s theories, particularly since Beane himself was a once-promising young player who gave up a full ride at Stanford to play baseball right out of high school, only to disappoint once he’d made it to the big time. The flashbacks of his lackluster career as a player underscore the older, wiser Beane’s decision to rely on past performance rather than future potential in choosing players.
So when Beane winds up with a roster filled with rejects, has-beens, old guys, and injured players, everyone from the front office to sports radio thinks he’s lost his mind. But as 2002 moves from spring training to the games of summer to the playoffs, the nay-sayers are in for some surprises.
“Moneyball” is based on Michael Lewis’ book, and while the movie could have been an endless series of phone calls and people staring at screens, director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) keeps things percolating, mixing in disparate elements like Beane’s family life and his conflicts with team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, all buzz-cut and red-nosed and looking like George Dzundza) and making everything feel organic to the story.
Which is not to say the phone calls aren’t riveting as well — there’s a scene where Beane and Peter juggle three different teams in an attempt to close a trade that’s a little masterpiece of managerial chicanery.
If “A River Runs Through It” was Pitt channeling young, golden-boy Robert Redford, then this film represents Pitt growing into his predecessor’s later roles in films like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Candidate,” where he took a somewhat bemused and cynical look at the world around him.
Having come up through major league baseball on both sides of the bench, Beane knows how entrenched the sport is with doing business in a certain way, but he nonetheless forges ahead with his (and Peter’s) radical notions. Whether Beane is berating a losing team or spending quality time with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), Pitt gets every moment just right.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hill more than holds his own opposite Pitt, exercising comedy muscles we’ve never seen him use on screen before. In movies like “Accepted,” “Superbad,” and “Cyrus,” Hill generates a wonderful brand of manic-nebbish energy, but here he’s a tamped-down, tie-wearing, soft-spoken Ivy Leaguer, and yet even within those constraints, his comic timing is perfect, turning the most disposable throw-away lines into nuggets of hilarity.
The best of the “based on a true story” films manage to make things suspenseful even when you’re aware how they turned out in real life. And while I was completely unaware of these events, even baseball fans may be surprised at the aftermath of the 2002 season and its ongoing impact on Beane’s life. “Moneyball” is a witty and captivating look at thinking outside the diamond.