Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)
checking out the the team they assembled in Moneyball.
While Moneyball might seem like an odd cinematic fit, the dream writing team of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zailian transform the story of the 2002 Oakland A's into something exciting, emotionally-involving, and surprisingly thoughtful. Though the film (thankfully) doesn't shy away from the nuts and bolts of building a successful baseball team, it's ultimately about more than hits, home runs, trades, and general managers. It's about a man sticking to his convictions. It's also about the fickle nature of legacy, especially in sports. And Sorkin and Zalian, as well as director Bennett Miller, make their points in as entertaining a way as possible, and for that, I give them a tremendous amount of credit. I really was skeptical about Moneyball earlier this year, but as things stand right now, it's among my favorite films of the year.
In 2001, the Oakland A's took the New York Yankees to the brink of playoff elimination, only to collapse in nearly unparalleled fashion, losing three straight games (two at home) and watching the rest of the playoffs at home. Though general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was largely praised for putting together such a strong team on a payroll that's a fraction of Yankees', he'll have his work cut out for him during the off-season, as three of the team's biggest stars are departed for bigger markets and bigger paychecks.
This gets Beane thinking: Why continue bringing up the league's best prospects only to see them in a Red Sox or Yankees uniform during the peaks of their careers? He decides it's time to rethink the process of building a championship team, and in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), he finds a mind that's young, smart, and uncorrupted by the old ways of thinking in Major League Baseball. And though there are plenty of growing pains—and a large chorus calling for Beane's head—his and Peter's methods prove quite successful.
For Moneyball's first two-thirds, it's an engaging character study and fun underdog baseball story. The acting is excellent, the film's pacing is right on, and the direction is energetic. Things take a quick change, however, and the film's coda (which thematically reminded me a lot of another Sorkin screenplay—Charlie Wilson's War) adds several layers of depth to the proceedings. Where I found myself involved throughout the entire film, it was the final thirty minutes that had me enthralled. The pace slows down quite a bit, but the film's message is clearly presented and quite resonant.
Moneyball, however, is nothing without Brad Pitt's exceptional performance. He's in pretty much every scene in the film, and he manages to disappear behind the character of Beane while simultaneously bringing a little of his own personality and swagger. There's a little of Rusty Ryan in Billy Beane, but this character has a great deal more to him. Beane's backstory is developed (perhaps not as much as I would have liked), but we see that he really started on this path at an early age, which helps us understand why he's willing to risk so much.
Jonah Hill is a big surprise. One would expect the star of films like Superbad to be full of snark, even in straightforward roles like this. He's not. Instead, he plays things quite earnestly. Peter is a low-key individual and is really meant to help move Billy along. But Hill keeps us invested in him, and though I'm still not sure he would've been my first choice for a role like this, he proves he's got real chops.
The film's missteps are few and far between. I already mentioned that I thought the Beane flashbacks didn't pay off as much as I would have liked. I also thought Phillip Seymour Hoffman was tragically underused as the A's manager, Art Howe. His character, I also thought, was given the short end of the stick, but all those things are neither here nor there. This is an excellent film and, along with Contagion and Drive from earlier this month, part of one of the strongest September movie lineups I've ever seen. If the rest of the fall plays out this well, we're in for a real treat. If it doesn't, expect Moneyball to be a major Oscar contender, for it's a damn good movie and well-worth the price of admission.