Hollywood loves sports movies because they’re so easy to make. You don’t have to go searching for conflict beneath the story’s surface; it’s already there within the nature of professional sports. All that remains is to align the audience’s sympathies with the underdog team and pit them against the strawman bad guys and you’ve got a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
There are plenty of underdogs in “Moneyball.” The Oakland Athletics, we understand, are financially strapped and struggling to stand alongside big boys like the Yankees and Red Sox. Three of their best players have been snatched up by free agency and their 2002 season looks grim. In any other movie they’d be the center of attention as we’d mingle with the players, learning their backgrounds and desires.
Not here. Bennett Miller’s newest film after “Capote,” also based on a real story, goes where most sports films don’t: behind the scenes, amongst the sports managers, coaches and talent scouts, wrangling their hands over which players to pick, which strategies to use, how to satisfy the fans. The real underdog in “Moneyball” is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Athletics’ general manager and a former baseball player. He gave up a full ride to Stanford to play in the big league and discovered, the hard way, that talent scouts make mistakes too.
The last movie to effectively deal with sports business was “Jerry Maguire,” which balanced its story of football agents with romantic-comedy elements. “Moneyball” takes a different approach. It works firmly within the rules of management and statistics, shunning the “guy gets girl” plot for “guy tries to change the very foundation of his sport.” To this end, Billy Beane hires Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to reinvent his management policy: instead of examining potential players for charisma and personal appeal, they’ll look strictly at their statistical record. If they can get on base, they have what it takes.
This strategy enrages baseball’s traditional base. The talent scouts are indignant: why should he, with his computers and cold approach to player selection, take precedent over them? Oakland manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is also bitter. He’s in charge of putting the right players on field and Beane seems to be giving him the runt of the pack.
The conclusion is a foregone one, but Miller takes his time. He allows Beane to suffer, to question his strategy and feel the possibility that he’ll be fired, before reaching his eventual triumph. Even when he gets there, the line between victory and defeat isn’t so easily drawn. We learn there’s a price to pay for all trendsetters as their strategies are universally adopted. Their initial victories become passé, forgotten, and though Billy Beane wants to change the game, he wants physical accomplishment too. You can’t convince a man who channels his stress by lifting weights to accept theoretical success.
The story’s complexity also stems from the massive talent behind the screenplay. Aaron Sorkin, fresh off his Oscar win for “The Social Network,” and Steve Zaillian, “Schindler’s List“ scribe, co-wrote the script. Imagine if Mark Twain and Charles Dickens bumped fists and collaborated on a novel. It’s pretty similar. The two screenwriters funnel their best traits — Sorkin’s ability to make computer and statistical lingo emotionally gripping, Zaillian’s subtle characterization — and collectively contribute to the success of “Moneyball” I’ll be damned if they don’t end up nominated for Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Oscars.
We witness several baseball games, but these are important for what they mean to Billy Beane, not the spectators. After meeting several of the Athletics’ key players, we know them not as people but pieces in a larger experiment. Beane explains to Brand in one scene the importance of keeping a distance from the players. They’ll have to trade away and let go of some of these boys, after all.
For those who know baseball inside and out, “Moneyball” will reward their knowledge with a no-nonsense look at the sport’s infrastructure. For the uninitiated, like myself, it maintains our interest with a slew of fascinating characters and questions about what constitutes success, personally and professionally.