In 2001 the Oakland A's won 102 games on their way to a second consecutive trip to the playoffs. Their season ended however when they lost the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees, a team with more than three and a half times the payroll. Despite the disappointing finish, the fantastic season would lead one to believe that there would be hope for Oakland's future. But with the loss of three key free agents whom the team can no longer afford, A's General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is faced with the seemingly impossible task of finding suitable replacements who can not only get back to the playoffs but overtake the likes of the Yankees to win a World Series.
In preparation for the 2002 season Beane attempts to solve a problem that seems to have no existing solution. With no new ideas coming from his scouts or front office Beane buys a Yale economics major named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) off of the Cleveland Indians. Brand doesn't bring a wealth of baseball experience with him. What he does bring however is the understanding of a formula originated in the late '70s by a pork'n'beans man named Bill James. One that organizations have been ignoring for 25 years. "Baseball thinking is medieval," Brand insists. Instead of buying players Brand believes, "You should be buying wins. And in order to buy wins you need to buy runs." Taking James' formula and running with it Beane and Brand set about putting together an unconventional championship team, the only kind a $38 million payroll could possibly buy.
Directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote") and with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List"), "Moneyball" boasts an impressive pedigree and the three of them have given us an equally impressive film. It's a film that will appeal to non-baseball fans because it's just a great story that's very well told. It takes us inside what goes on behind the scenes of the world of baseball without being too "inside baseball." We see Beane as a man of passion who has an ambition beyond just winning and who loves his daughter more than anything in the world. Appropriately for being a lifelong baseball man, Beane is also superstitious, to the point that he won't allow himself to attend games or even watch them on TV for more than a minute or two. Pitt has always had an ease on screen, rarely chewing the scenery. This may be his most naturalistic performance in a career full of them. He infuses Beane's relentless passion with a sense of adventure and wry humor that one would need to try to change the way baseball works.
"Moneyball" features a fine supporting cast as well. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a solid performance as A's manager Art Howe, a man who doesn't understand the new philosophy and fights against it daily when filling out the lineup card. Chris Pratt ("Parks and Recreation") is funny and likeable as Oakland's unlikely new first baseman, Scott Hatteberg, a guy who's never been anything but a catcher. The real standout though is a seriously toned down Jonah Hill. Funny in an entirely different way than he's ever been before, Hill gives the most complete and impressive performance of his career. The demeanor he brings to Brand belies the importance of his role as the true architect of the team.
For lifelong baseball fans such as myself "Moneyball" is a brilliant film within a brilliant film. It's a movie that acknowledges that yes, nerds like baseball too, which is after all the only way that Bill James' sabermetrics approach could come about. There's a sense of excitement in the moments of Beane's and Brand's meetings with players to get them onboard with the mindset. With a philosophy that includes, "no more stealing bases or bunting," legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver would be proud.
It is also more realistic in terms of its baseball scenes than the vast majority of baseball movies. Granted there are only a small handful of scenes involving on-field action but you never find yourself shaking your head at an actor's terrible swing or pitching motion. It just looks and feels the way it should. Miller also does an excellent job of creating tension within these scenes even if you know the outcome.
Like any film that tells of true events it plays around with historical fact. For instance, the real Peter Brand (Paul DePodesta) actually joined the A's organization in 1999 and the principles he'd brought with him had been implemented throughout his time there. That hardly matters though. What matters is that this isn't just tagged with the qualifier of being a great baseball film. It's a great film, full stop. For the second week in a row I am deeming a movie "unmissable" ("Drive" being the other). Besides, as Beane puts it near film's end, "How can you not be romantic about baseball?" With a movie this good you have to be. 9.5/10.