For my money, the best baseball movie of the past 25 years is 1988's Bull Durham (sorry, but I never got into the mystical sports-in-the-cornfield corn of Field of Dreams). Tellingly, that Kevin Costner classic was a movie as much about talk loose, low-down, purplish, inspired as it was about baseball. The supersmart and rousing Moneyball, which may be the best baseball movie since Bull Durham, is also about talk, but in a coolly heady and original inside-the-front-office way. Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 nonfiction book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the picture was scripted by the powerhouse team of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and directed by Capote's Bennett Miller, here proving his major-league mettle. It opens with footage of a 2002 playoff series in which the New York Yankees beat the Oakland A's, a series that is meant to illustrate what the film presents as the essential, rigged reality of modern sports: The deeper a team's pockets, the more probable it is that that team will win. The Yankees, who took that series, had a budget of $114 million; the A's, $39 million.
The moment that Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the A's general manager, walks into the office of the team's owner to plead for a bigger budget, Moneyball is drenched in a kind of wise-guy-jock knowingness about what makes professional baseball tick. Yet the dialogue is so light and sharp it just about cuts the air. Billy, a former big-money player whose own career didn't pan out, is too superstitious to even watch the games. Sitting around arguing with his aging scouts (the scenes have the kind of flavor that lets you smell the locker room), Billy knows his season is doomed. It's during a trading meeting with the Cleveland Indians that he meets and poaches a young assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a graduate of Yale who has used computer analysis to perfect a statistical vision of the game that's more refined, and maybe more humane, than the standard drill of big-money-buys-big-talent.
Brand's insight is that if you ignore a lot of the obvious flaws that damage players in the eyes of professional scouts (bad legs, can't field, too thick in the middle, likes strip clubs and weed too much), and you focus instead on one single, telltale metric the percentage of times that they get on base then tons of players who don't cost very much will turn out to be winners. What would happen if you built an entire team out of these green-diamond misfits?
That was Billy Beane's grand, desperate experiment. And Moneyball, in following how it turned out with a heightened journalistic intricacy, may be the first baseball film to tap into the thrill of strategizing of manipulated cause and effect as entertainingly as you'd expect from a movie about chess or a casino heist. (Steven Soderbergh spent a long time developing this project before he and the studio parted ways, and you can still feel his fingerprints on it.)
As an actor, Brad Pitt has aged like a fine wine. In Moneyball, he's in classic, game-on movie-star mode, his hair flopping with boyish insolence over his rugged features, but beneath his funny, exhilarating, tossed-off strut of a performance, he gives Billy a deep river of self-doubt, as well as a need to prove himself that never quite comes out and shows itself. (That's its nagging power.) The trading scenes, done mostly over the phone, are little comedies of brusqueness, with the names of players flaunted and abandoned like cards in a poker game. Jonah Hill, spouting a gnomic fan's mastery of stats, brings his whole deadpan-geek thing to a new height of pinpoint timing (he's like a stone-faced rabbi of baseball), and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the team manager, Art Howe, does a character turn that's as fresh for him as the crew cut that makes him look like a grizzled old-timer. Howe hates Billy and this whole method, but the tension between these two is never merely cute.
Moneyball takes quite a while to get to anything like a big game, but when it does, as the A's approach the climax of an audacious winning streak, you'll feel that fist-pump rush. The film is a little long, with one too many endings, but it's a baseball drama about something novel and rich: Billy's desire not just to win but to change the game to take it back from the accountants and rediscover the joy of players who could still triumph by surprising you. A-