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Moneyball

Once upon a time, Steven Soderbergh set out to make a baseball movie. The screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Searching for Bobby Fischer, et al.). Brad Pitt was starring and producing through his Plan B shingle. Demetri Martin had a lead role as well. The budget was set, the greenlight was given, Soderbergh had even shot some interview scenes for the film.

And then… Moneyball got cancelled. After all of that work, Sony pulled the plug on this project. The day before principal photography, no less. The problems didn’t stop there, either. Soderbergh left to do Contagion, and director of photography Adam Kimmel was arrested on charges of sexual assault and possession of weapons and explosives.

For any other movie, this would be the end of the story. But someone behind the scenes was evidently determined to see this project through. Zaillian was brought back on to rework the script alongside screenwriting legend Aaron Sorkin. The great Wally Pfister signed on as DOP (this was before he won an Oscar for Inception). Demetri Martin’s role was overhauled and recast for Jonah Hill. Last but not least, the new director was Bennett Miller, who had previously earned an Oscar nomination for his motion picture debut, Capote.

Under this new leadership, the movie finally started filming in July of 2010.

Moneyball in its first incarnation had an impressive pedigree, but this latest roster of talent is outright jaw-dropping. For a cancelled production to recover in such a manner is remarkable in itself. That it turned out to be one of the year’s best films is nothing short of a miracle.

On the surface, this movie would appear to be just another dime-a-dozen underdog sports movie. I’ll admit that it is in a lot of ways, but there are also a few refreshing changes of pace. For starters, the focus of the movie isn’t on a player or a coach, but on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Because Billy has no part on the diamond, precious little of the film is comprised of actual baseball. This means that almost all of this movie’s action takes place behind the scenes, in the various meetings and conference calls that make up the business end of a baseball team. This may sound boring, until you remember that the movie was co-written by Aaron freakin’ Sorkin, who earned his considerable reputation by making such dialogue-heavy interactions fun to watch.

Something else that separates this movie from so many others of its genre is that most underdog sports movies are focused on the championship. The last game of the season is traditionally the climax of these movies. Not here. Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s aren’t just a team of rejects looking to redeem themselves by winning a championship, they’re looking to redeem themselves by changing the entire game of baseball as we know it!

The stakes in this movie are tremendous, and the filmmakers do an exquisite job of making that clear. After all, this is a sports franchise that’s already one mistake away from oblivion, and Beane’s new low-budget approach might just be that mistake. In trying something so entirely counter to conventional wisdom, Beane is effectively gambling millions of dollars and thousands of jobs (including his own!) that could blow up in his face at any moment. Additionally, this conflict is presented in such a way that major league baseball is made into a metaphor for politics, economics, or anything else in which the participants would rather die than change the status quo.

In this case, Beane’s co-workers aren’t keen on letting their welfare rest with a plan they don’t understand, conceived by someone they know nothing about. There really aren’t any villains in this picture, just people looking to the tried and true for comfort and salvation, ignorant or perhaps apathetic to the fact that business as usual is what led them to failure in the first place. Furthermore, they’re afraid of the fact that the new “Moneyball” method relies entirely on statistics, ignoring such human elements as emotion and intuition. Then again, the movie is good enough to raise the point that logic and intuition can be equally fallible. A big part of this is in Billy’s backstory.

At certain points in the second act, the movie flashes back to Billy’s life after high school. Back in his senior year, Billy was considered by most professional scouts to be the ideal baseball player, so they paid him a ton of money to turn down a full scholarship at Stanford and join the MLB. Alas, it turns out that Billy failed miserably as a baseball player and he decided to quit after only a few seasons. The movie holds this up as an example of how even the best scouts can fail to predict the future, which happens all the time in professional sports (*coughGregOdencough*). Perhaps more importantly, this look at Billy’s life strongly affects our perception of the character.

Brad Pitt plays Billy with a tremendous amount of swagger, but he always makes it implicitly clear that the character is just acting tough to hide his fears and insecurities. He’s worried that the Moneyball experiment will fail, just the same as everyone else, but he compensates for that with sheer determination and vocal belief that this will work. When he’s taking charge and putting the plan into effect, he’s enjoyable to watch because he’s tough and charismatic. When the facade starts to slip and his frustration gets unbearable, he’s fun to watch because there’s no telling how that anger will manifest or when. It’s an amazing performance all around.

Opposite him is Jonah Hill, playing the economics major with a gift for crunching baseball stats. It’s tempting to say that Peter Brand is the brain and Billy is the muscle, but that would be oversimplifying the partnership just a tad. In truth, it’s Peter who develops the strategy and Billy who devises the means of implementing it. There’s one point in the back half, for example, in which Billy trades a player off just so the manager won’t be able to put that player in and deviate from the plan. Shortly after, Billy talks with the players and explains in great detail how he wants them to hit and to act, so that their strengths can be properly brought out. For instance, there’s one player who’s been overlooked and undervalued because he’s relatively old. He downplays that and sees it as a disadvantage, until Billy tells him to use all those years and experience toward being a leader and a role model within the team.

That’s actually a very prominent theme within the movie: Owning one’s faults and turning them into advantages. Taking lemons and making lemonade. It’s quite telling how many times in this movie someone says “He’s too old,” “He’s no good,” or “Some team’s trying to get rid of him,” only for Billy to reply “Perfect! That means he’s in our price range!”

Getting back to Jonah Hill, he does indeed play the schlubby loser that we’ve come to expect from his performances. The difference is that this time, he brings something I didn’t think he was capable of: Intelligence. He does a very convincing job as a character who’s extremely smart. These two character traits are very admirably put together to create an Aspergian prodigy. He’s a brilliant guy who’s socially awkward, made even more of a misfit by his unorthodox ideas. He’s a guy who’s undervalued because of how much he doesn’t conform to expectations, but he’s absolutely ingenious where it counts. In other words, he’s exactly like the players that Billy ends up recruiting.

Meanwhile, Robin Wright gets maybe two minutes of screen time as Billy’s ex-wife. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as the Oakland manager who stubbornly plays orthodox baseball with an unorthodox team, much to the team’s failure and to Billy’s chagrin. It’s a totally thankless role, though I suppose Hoffman owed Bennett Miller a favor after that Oscar win for Capote. Easily the most prominent supporting character is Billy’s daughter, played by young Kerris Dorsey. She’s absolutely adorable, though it certainly helps that the film was smart enough to use her sparingly. She appears just long enough to show Billy’s softer side, disappearing before she wears out her welcome.

Aside from Pitt and Hill, there aren’t many actors in this movie who appear long enough for a mention, though the screenplay is so outstanding that every single member of the cast comes out looking like an ace. Between Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue is so masterful that any halfway decent actor could make it pop off the page. The writers also experiment with the film’s pacing in some intriguing ways, particularly during the third act. The final third is structured in such a way that the climax comes unusually early, followed by an event that’s part climax and part resolution, just before a touching epilogue. It’s quite interesting.

Finally, there are the visuals. Yes, there’s a lot of outlandish product placement, but I can let that slide (pun!), given the nature of the film’s subject matter. That aside, this film is wonderful in how it conveys a huge amount of information in just a few visuals. For example, the use of graphs and numbers on computer screens to show all the data being crunched is quite remarkable. There are also several montages which utilize footage of baseball games, footage of fans, news coverage, voice-overs, and even title cards. These montages do a superb job of showing Moneyball’s effect on the Oakland A’s and the MLB at large, further demonstrating the progress our characters are making and re-establishing the stakes that they’re playing for. My hat’s off to Miller, Pfister, and editor Christopher Tellefsen for this outstanding work.

Forgive the pun, but Moneyball knocks it out of the park. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill both turn in extraordinary performances, and Bennett Miller further establishes himself as a director to keep an eye on. The visuals are superb from start to finish, and the dialogue is worth the price of admission all by itself. Perhaps best of all, this is a sports movie that aspires to be more than just another underdog story. This is a movie that goes the extra mile and explicitly makes baseball a metaphor for everything in this world that’s become reliant on obsolete practices, resistant to the change so desperately needed. Even better, this is a story that dares to dream bigger than any one game or even an entire season. After all, what difference does one championship make when history has already been made?

Oh, and did I mention that this was based on a true story?

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