In baseball, at least at the Major League level, one encounters an almost paradoxical mix of poetry and mathematics. Perhaps to those who can wield and see the patterns in numbers as impressively as a big leaguer pivots to complete a double play or manages to hit a breaking pitch that's moving at 90 miles per hour, the math and poetry are one in the same. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Bradd Pitt) as portrayed in Moneyball is not exactly one of these savants, but he tries to bring off the marriage of seeming opposites out of necessity. He's aided by the much more statistically-inclined Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate of Yale University, whom he acquires from the Cleveland Indians after he practically gets laughed out of the Indians' offices after trying to bring off trades for actual players with the depleted stock of his ball club after the 2001 season.
Moneball, based of the book of the same title by Michael Lewis, chronicles the unlikely fate of the 2002 Oakland A's. Working with a small-market budget, Beane and Brand acquire players to fill out their 25-man squad, utilizing the Sabermetric method of analyzing baseball statistics to find their bargains with players overlooked by other major league teams. Here a submarining reliever whose awkward delivery excites no one, acquired to be a bullpen stalwart; there a catcher who can no longer throw, signed to play first base for the A's, despite the fact that he's never played the position. Altogether, it's, "...like an island of misfit toys," as Brand says.
The need to be creative was particularly acute for the A's, who after losing to the ever-affluent Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, saw their three star players drawn away by the call of lucrative free agency. As Beane says to his assembled scouting team prior to the 2002 season, "It’s an unfair game. And now we’re being gutted, organ donors for the rich. Boston has taken our kidneys, Yankees takin’ our heart and you guys are sittin’ around talkin’ the same old good body nonsense, like we’re selling deeds. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We got to think differently.” This different thinking meant the reliance on Sabermetrics and the upstart Brand, to the gruff chagrin of Beane's veteran baseball men and his mutinous manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The real Art Howe, not surprisingly, is less than thrilled with how he has been portrayed in Mr. Lewis' book and in Moneyball.
Moneyball was to be a Steven Soderbergh film. The director had apparently done some shooting and was planning to be as realistic as possible in his approach. But his last re-write of the script worried Sony executive Amy Pascal enough for her to scuttle the production days before shooting was to begin in earnest. Soderbergh has an impressive track record, but the change at the helm might have been fortuitous in the case of Moneyball. Bennett Miller, who also directed Capote, was ultimately selected to take over the production. The results are self evident. To the non-fan, baseball is already a kind of purgatory. Add to that the task of enlivening a baseball story that has a lot to do with statistics, and there would seem a great possibility of putting audiences to sleep, if they show up at at all.
Mr. Miller finds a good balance between professional actors and actual baseball players and scouts. There's also a judicious and fairly seamless mix of real footage of the 2002 A's in Moneyball that dovetails with brief re-creations shot for the film. Sports movies can be a minefield for both actors and athletes alike. Film history is strewn with actors taking laughable swings with bats (I give you LeVar Burton as Ron LeFlore, among many sad examples), or those making gawky throws as quarterbacks (Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait and Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout come quickly to mind). Athletes acting usually fare little better. Miller generally lets real players do the throwing and hitting - former big leaguer Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada - and has his actors do the talking - Chris Pratt as the catcher with a bum arm, Scott Hatteberg; Casey Bond as low-slinging reliever Chad Bradford.
Having made computer geekdom almost sexy with his screenplay for The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin manages an arguably more impressive feat, taking source material thick with the business and statistics of baseball and giving it an emotional impact. Mr. Sorkin wrote a final draft of the script which is also credited to veteran screenwriter Steve Zaillian. Characters in Moneyball do speak with a Sorkian clarity, much as the writer has adapted to the context. This is not The Social Network, in which the Mark Zuckerberg character spoke not only in complete sentences, but often in complete paragraphs. Billy Beane and the other baseball lifers might speak emphatically, but they do so laconically. And when the A's general manager makes a rare speech in the locker room after he's made some of his most decisive and potentially disastrous moves, it might be the briefest, least inspiring pep talk in the history of sports films, "Everybody, listen up. You may not look like a winning team, but you are one. So...play like one tonight." Nothing to send the troops thundering out onto the the battlefield, but a well-chosen bit of understatement on the part of Mr. Sorkin.
Really making all of this work is Brad Pitt as the iconoclastic A's general manager. As he's gotten older and his seeming physical perfection has shown some of the inevitable marks of time - the flesh about that idol face gathering slightly, dulling just a bit the impact of the facial sculpture - Pitt's ability as an actor, his ability to convey depth of emotion has developed almost proportionally. Like another generation's almost iconic movie star, Robert Redford, Pitt is taking on archetypal American roles in his maturity. Redford apparently went about this quite consciously, his roles as the athlete (Downhill Racer) and the politician (The Candidate) two parts of a trilogy that was to include a never made film about a figure in big business. In recent years, Pitt has played the outlaw (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and a very American type of domineering father figure in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Concerned as it is with youthful promise wasted and a hope for redemption in a baseball context, Moneyball is, in a sense, Pitt's The Natural, Redford's baseball film.
The travails of the 2002 Oakland Athletics are interspersed in Moneyball with flashbacks to the brief, disappointing career of Billy Beane the baseball player. Beane was thought a can't-miss prospect out of high school, forgoing a scholarship to Stanford to sign a major league contract. Like many a golden boy, Beane missed in a big way as a player. The memory of that failure and regret of choices made (or not) haunts Beane as he faces another possible abject failure as a general manager. One of the little-illuminated sides of professional sports that Moneyball captures is the loneliness of being one of those envied professional athletes or executives when nothing is going right, when fans are booing or speaking even more loudly with empty seats. Meanwhile, the irrational chorus of sports radio rages on. As Beane says to Brand, before the dramatic turnaround of the 2002 A's, "I may lose my job, in which case I'm a forty year old guy with a high school diploma and a daughter I'd like to be able to send to college."
The time in the spotlight for any star of the game, player or executive (general managers who orchestrate championships are very highly paid stars in their own right), when the applause resounds and money seems unlimited can be all-too-brief. And here we encounter another baseball contradiction. It is the one major sport played largely oblivious to time. Much as umpires have been instructed in recent years to hurry the often three-hour games along, baseball is a game without a clock. And yet, what game more parallels the cycle of life, the passage of time in the arc of the baseball season, starting each spring and finishing each fall? There might be an almost eternal sense of renewal in this for fans, but the seemingly endless season or career must reach its conclusion with a ruthless finality for those whose profession, whose passion it is. In his retirement, the great Mickey Mantle used to speak of a dream in which he tried to get back into Yankee stadium, literally dig his way in.
Despite winning a record 20 straight games during one unlikely stretch through the late summer of 2002, the Oakland A's season ended in a manner quite consistent with the cycle of the seasons and passage of time. Their general manager had to take his consolation in something other than a World Series trophy. However it fares in its own postseason contest, gathering that particular gold statuette or not on February 26, 2012, Moneyball's enduring significance is won with an expression of something beyond money and statistics, largely on the strength of the charismatic, soulful performance of its star.