MOVIE RATING: 4.5 stars (A-)
(Updated February 19, 2012)
There’s something about baseball. It just works on the silver screen. I’m not a big fan of watching baseball in person, or on TV, but it can really zing on a movie screen. Following last year’s movie masterpiece The Social Network (2010), screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and Moneyball co-screenwriter Steven Zaillian, have fashioned this year’s crisply intelligent word game to where it almost felt like the sequel to the Facebook film. The same brilliance that brought the seemingly “boring” business of social media to epic Greek-Tragedy-life, now brings the business and statistics of baseball to that same place. While The Social Network is about invention, friendship, trust, and revenge, Moneyball is about ambition, courage, logic, and intuition. Both to a large extent are tales of underdogs, scrappily fighting their way to the top, reaching their goals however possible with limited resources.
Up-and-coming film director Bennett Miller did an amazing job pulling this movie together and telling a great new story in a genre that is extremely tough to compete in: the sports movie. Not only is that genre crowded, the baseball sports movie sub-genre can easily fill 9 innings or more with good films: Field of Dreams (1989), Bull Durham (1988), The Natural (1984), Eight Men Out (1988), A League of Their Own (1992), Major League (1989), The Bad News Bears (1976), The Rookie (2002), and 61* (2001). While Moneyball doesn’t quite manage the extra greatness that I believe Field of Dreams, Hoosiers (1986), Days of Thunder (1990), and Rudy (1993) occupy as sports movies about underdogs, it does bring a lot to the table to trade with those films.
To begin with, actors Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman really brought their A-games to the Oakland A’s. Some might argue that Hoffman’s performance as Art Howe is too subdued and that he has very little dialogue in the film. But the pure weight of his performance with his somber, quiet, old school heft really works for the character he’s playing: a grizzled, set-in-his-ways baseball manager up against a younger fire-in-his-pants general manager. Pitt plays the GM, Billy Beane, who wants to shake things up and change the system that they’ve all worked in for years and years. Beane realizes that the system is broken and that the teams at the bottom with limited financial resources just can’t compete against the teams at the top with much bigger budgets to spend on the best players in the game. It’s this conceit that sets up the “risk it all” strategy that Pitt employs by hiring Jonah Hill’s character Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate whose never played a lick of baseball, to assist him in throwing the traditional baseball scouts on their asses by using logic and statistics instead of popularity, gut instincts, and experience to pick players and create the team with.
I think the strongest asset in this underdog story is the battle between logic and intuition. It’s a classic philosophical debate in every “game” or endeavor in life. And while some might argue that Moneyball’s Beane proves to a degree that logic rules over intuition, I think he’s really just trying to bring logic back into the game to play alongside intuition. Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, doesn’t exactly scream “great athlete” in terms of his physical prowess and athleticism by today’s standards. You wouldn’t see a scout pick a player that looks and acts like Ruth today. But his statistics don’t lie. And Beane is simply trying to combine intuition, experience, and talent with statistics to show that sometimes a player might not look on the surface or by their book cover to be a good player, but if their statistics say otherwise, maybe they should be looked at more closely.
The production design and cinematography in Moneyball are right up there with most great films coming out of Hollywood today. Neither overly stood out as exceptional to me, but they definitely aren’t average either. There’s a realism and “documentary” style to the way Moneyball looks and feels. Pitt’s hair and costumes are more average joe, helping portray his character as anything but the sexiest-man-alive movie star that Pitt normally plays. He’s a father, an ex-husband, and a general manager. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see no love interest or romance for the leading man in a movie. We tend to fantasize and dream that we can have it all in the movies: love, career, family, sex, etc. But in reality, lots of men and women who put so much of their passion into their careers, don’t have the perfect personal lives we see on screen. I’m glad this movie didn’t just stick in a sexy momma for Pitt’s character to tango with. Pitt’s love in Moneyball is the game of baseball. That’s his mistress.
There are a number of great, memorable scenes in Moneyball that I keep playing over and over in my head as I think about the film. Scenes from the various games, the stadium, and the locker room. Scenes in the meeting room between Pitt and the scouts. Scenes in the offices between Pitt and Hill. And scenes with Pitt all by himself. Moneyball’s editing, led by Christopher Tellefsen, keeps the film moving most of the time at a good pace, with a few 7th inning slumps. But overall, I felt the film was just right. Some critics and viewers have said that Moneyball is too long and that it drags at times, but I found it engaging nearly the whole time. I can’t remember ever looking at my watch. I was vested in the story and felt the stakes, wanting to see how it all played out.
The score and music by Mychael Danna really worked for me, giving the film the deeper emotional connection that I wanted from it. And the sound department did an amazing job with their work, certainly challenged by some of the locations they had to record in. At some point I want to listen to Moneyball’s score all on its own to really appreciate it. I have a feeling there’s more to it than meets the eye.
You can’t go wrong in watching Moneyball. The intelligence, wit, emotion, and craft in this film should appeal on some level with just about everyone. Just like The Social Network is not really a movie just about Facebook, Moneyball is not really a movie just about baseball. This is the movie I’ve been waiting for all year. And it’s currently the best film I’ve seen in 2011. We’ll see how it holds up after the next three months, but I’m pretty certain it will be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. I’m anxious to see Moneyball several more times to see how it plays. Both my logical mind and my intuitive gut tell me it has the stuff to hold up for years to come and be a regular performer in my movie library.
Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.