Dir. Bennett Miller
(2011, PG-13, 133 min)

I’ve always wondered about the financial inequality allowed in Major League Baseball. When one team is allowed to spend two, three, or four times as much money as another just because it can, thereby allowing it to outbid all other teams for the best players, doesn’t that hurt the integrity of the game? Teams are not regional clubs but corporate entities able to tip the scales based on the cost of its payroll; consider what happens to the mom-and-pop shops when Walmart moves to town. Are all team sports like this?

Moneyball is a fascinating, exciting look at what happens inside baseball when one man tries to game a system that was gamed to begin with. Based on a book by Michael Lewis, its screenplay was co-written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin, and it reminds me a bit of The Social Network in the way it shows an old-guard elite threatened by a new method of doing business. Things have been done a certain way for a long time, and a lot of people have made – and spent – a lot of money doing things that way. When someone proposes a change, it’s met not only with skepticism but resentment.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager for the Oakland Athletics, who reach the playoffs in 2001 but suffer a painful loss to the New York Yankees. Then in the off-season, the team’s star players are poached by the Yankees and the Red Sox, who have deeper pockets, prompting Billy to hire Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has an economics degree from Yale but a keen mind for baseball; he sees the sport differently from the establishment recruiters, as strictly a numbers game. Together, Billy and Peter buck tradition and put together a team no one else likes.

“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” says Beane more than once. The film itself does a good job of maintaining that balance, providing the rooting value of an underdog story while maintaining a tough, critical eye towards how the game is played, not on the field but off, where sentimentality disappears in a frantic shuffle of business transactions and strategy meetings. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) is able to have his cake and eat it too. He offers sometimes cold, sometimes funny scenes of behind-the-scenes brinkmanship, including one scene of exciting telephone ballet in which Billy manipulates three other teams as well as his team’s owner in order to acquire just one player, but then must fire one of his own just before the game. But Miller also orchestrates stirring emotional sequences like one that chronicles a record-breaking winning streak, which blends stock footage with dramatized scenes to great effect.

It’s not a spoiler to say the Athletics didn’t win the World Series that year, but the filmmakers are wise not to make this a story about whether the team wins the Big Game. Instead they frame it as a story about an unbalanced system, resistance to change, and also as a character study about a man trying to make up for past disappointment. The last shots of the film are perfect in how they express the reasons for Beane’s final decision; some things are all about the money, but some things aren’t.

 

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