As he did with last year’s “The Social Network,” Aaron Sorkin (with co-screenwriter Steve Zaillian) takes an unlikely subject and turns it into a dramatically compelling movie. Consider “Moneyball” the unofficial kickoff to the 2011 Oscar season. Based on Michael Lewis’ book about the Oakland Athletics’ almost-pennant-winning 2002 season, it stars Brad Pitt — in his most lived-in, adult performance — as the team’s general manager, who determines to pull his lower-end, scrappy team out of their rut by breaking the traditional rules of the professional baseball business.
Those rules include paying huge salaries to players with star personalities and, often, a spectacular but discrete skill: batting, running or pitching. Gold-plated one-trick ponies, in other words. Dealing with a budget in the $30 million range, as opposed to the Yankees’ $100 million-plus purse, Billy Beane (Pitt) faces a crisis when a handful of the Athletics’ top players quit the team in 2001. While his roomful of crusty old scouts throw out names of second-best imitations of those lost players, Beane figuratively overturns the table (something we’ll see him do literally a couple of times later).
Visiting the Cleveland Indians in search of replacements, Beane instead discovers a pasty schlub named Paul Brand (Jonah Hill, toning down his usual hostile-comic shtick to terrific effect), who seems very out of place in his geeky blazer and tie. “Whose nephew are you?” Beane automatically asks. But Brand (a fictionalized version of Paul DePodesta) is a statistical savant whose job is “player analysis.” He crunches the numbers of all the league’s players’ stats, pinpointing hidden potential in athletes undervalued by major scouters — on account of age, past injuries, difficult personalities or faces that just wouldn’t look pretty on a baseball card.
Working with Brand, Beane decides to replace his exiting stars with fellows most people have never heard of, at commensurately affordable salaries. This gets up the nose of Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, great), the old-school A’s manager, who plants himself as the immovable object in the path of Beane’s irresistible force. (Beane’s scorched-earth method for getting the stubborn Howe to put players in the position Beane prefers is an extremely satisfying sequence.)
Unfolding largely in fluorescent corridors and banged-up offices and locker rooms, “Moneyball” should feel claustrophobic and about as fun as one of Brand’s spreadsheets. Instead, it clips along at two-plus hours that feel about half that long. Funny how that happens when a movie treats you like an adult. Forget pyrotechnics or cheap sentiment. Probably the film’s best scene takes place in a single room, Beane’s office, as he and Brand play telephone tag with other teams’ GMs, trading players like so many stocks.
“Moneyball” is fascinating as it questions what makes a winning baseball team. Is it just a matter of numbers and statistics, or do you have to figure in the athletes’ unquantifiable instincts — their souls, for lack of a better word? There is, after all, a tricky tug of war between maintaining the bottom line and respecting the unique input of the people playing the game. Watching this movie, it’s hard not to think of recent statistics showing that big escalations in U.S. corporate profits have been accompanied by big escalations in layoffs of the very workers who helped make those profits.
Steven Soderbergh was initially signed to direct “Moneyball,” but the project was temporarily stalled by Sony and the “Erin Brockovich” director left the project. He’s replaced here by Bennett Miller, who directed Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar in “Capote.” Soderbergh might have given us a cooler, possibly quirkier film, but Miller delivers a skillful, craftsmanlike appreciation of the business of baseball.
In addition to Hoffman, good supporting work comes from Stephen Bishop as onetime Atlanta Brave David Justice, first Beane’s antagonist and then his quiet ally. Robin Wright also turns up in a barely-there scene as Beane’s supportive ex-wife. The best family-side impression comes from Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s 12-year-old daughter. A scene at a music store, with Dorsey bashfully but beautifully singing a self-penned song, is both a digression from the main storyline and a reminder of “Moneyball’s” fascination with the mystery of talent. Where does it come from? And why doesn’t everyone have it?
Flashbacks to Beane’s lackluster career as a baseball player himself reinforce this idea. Played as a youth by Pitt lookalike Reed Thompson, the young Beane, on paper and even on the field, looked like a total star with multiple skills. But once he was scouted and hired by the Mets, he balked.
“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” Beane says at one point. Against the odds, this movie finds the delicate balance that it intends: it deconstructs the game but also manages to celebrate what make this ungainly, hot-weather sport our national pastime. It demystifies, but only bolsters, baseball’s mystique.
“Moneyball.” With Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and (barely) Robin Wright. Directed by Bennett Miller. 133 minutes. Rated PG-13. At metro theaters.