Film review: Moneyball

by Fiona Rae / 18 February, 2012
Helene Wong doesn't know much about baseball, but Moneyball, opening this week, is the sports movie of the year.

I don’t pretend to know much about Major League baseball, and after seeing Moneyball I still don’t know how the competition works. But I don’t care, because for well over two hours I was completely engrossed, gaining more insight into its world than from any other baseball movie in the past. This isn’t just a sports movie; there’s a bigger, more universal idea at its heart, and one that anyone, on or off the sports field, can connect with.

On the surface, it looks like a typical underdog story: the Oakland As are a severely under-resourced team (an eight-figure budget as opposed to the New York Yankees’ nine figures), and at the end of the 2001 season they lose three of their star players. General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has to think clever to keep the As in contention. His solution is to bring in a nerdy Yale economics graduate (Jonah Hill) to trawl through video footage, crunch numbers and apply a theory called “sabermetrics” to baseball stats. Again, you don’t need to know all the ins and outs of this, or that it was originated by a baseball writer and historian called Bill James, but you get the important bit: it pitches Beane headlong into conflict with his management team, who, when it comes to player selection, believe in the superiority of their experience and instinct – the “intangibles” – over science.

Puzzling them even more is that Beane seems to be concentrating on second-rate players – the underperformers, the low-valued and the over-the-hill. This is where it gets really interesting. It’s not so much about getting players cheaply; it’s about identifying the under­appreciated and motivating them to perform to the strengths their stats suggest, rather than according to the judgments made on them by others. We can relate to that: in the matter of individual potential, opinions – the “intangibles” – have the terrible power to develop or destroy a career. And in this way, the film hooks us into having a stake in Beane’s quest.

Efficient flashbacks reveal that the quest is also highly personal. A casualty himself of the mysterious psychology of performance, Beane has a need to understand what happened and to redeem himself. It’s a redemption that’s as subtle and understated as the film itself, and that, too, is part of its appeal. The exaggerated dramatics of sports movies is conspicuously absent, as is a formulaic plotline. And the acting is impeccable. Pitt’s Beane has multiple subtextual layers, and Jonah Hill, who must possess the most eloquent blank stare in the business at the moment, delivers a rich, deadpan stillness. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played lead in director Bennett Miller’s Capote, embodies perfectly the look, shape and resigned heaviness of a head coach. The lesser known faces cast as players and managers are so convincing I thought they must be plucked from real teams.

It helps that they have excellent material to work from. Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) have adapted Michael Lewis’s book about these true events with razor-sharp writing and specific rounded characters. Scenes depicting the horse-trading of players among major league team managers are simultaneously shocking yet revealing of the culture, and masterly in their economy and ability to mine humour from ruthlessness. Exchanges between Beane and his colleagues are honed into measured, articulate hostility, with those between Pitt and Hoffman bristling brilliantly with suppressed fury. And if the scenes from Beane’s personal life with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) occasionally skirt sentiment, they provide a useful softening of his character and don’t detract from the whole.

Visually, this behind-the-scenes story opts for a deliberately unglamorous treatment. Shot tight, it’s all offices, meetings and locker rooms. There is little choreographed baseball; instead, a superlative editing and sound mixing feat weaves archive footage of the real games and sportscaster commentaries into a beautiful example of how cinema can deliver exposition, attitude and story in one hit. If you see only one sports movie this year, make it this one.

MONEYBALL, directed by Bennett Miller, click here for theatres and times.

Click here for more reviews by Helene Wong.
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