‘Capote’ director returns with follow-up

By Drew Hunt

Numbers don’t lie—or so goes the premise of the new film “Moneyball,” the story of Oakland A’s head-honcho Billy Beane who, in 2002, hatched a harebrained plan to reinvent the game of baseball by rejecting tradition and embracing the rationality of mathematics.

Played by Brad Pitt, Beane is an ex-player turned general manager who runs his team like he’s still in the league. With a swagger in his step and an ever-present piece of chew in his mouth, Beane is faced with the reality of Major League Baseball’s uneven fiscal playing field after his championship team is gutted by clubs with a deeper payroll.

As he says in the film, “There are the rich teams and the poor teams, and then there’s 50 feet of crap and then there’s us.” With his best players gone and a lack of cash to entice adequate replacements, Beane has no choice but to embrace the strategy of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics.

Together they assemble a team based around statistical analysis rather than the subjective scouting process used for a century. Controversy erupts as Beane signs players who appear to be less than stellar athletes but, on paper at least, will give them the most bang for their buck.

Make no mistake: “Moneyball” is not a traditional sports film—mainly because there’s very little sports action in it to begin with. Instead, the film relies on scenes heavy with number crunching and conference calls to create intrigue. There are lots of pens and paper, not a lot of balls and bats.

Yet a significant amount of drama is cultivated from scenes where the circumstances—not the action—propel the narrative. There’s a lot on the line for Beane and his team. Money—for one thing—but also pride and reputations. “Moneyball” is less about the tangible stakes on the field and more about the stakes that arise when people make monumental but largely invisible decisions.

Call it the thinking man’s sports movie.

In a lot of ways, “Moneyball” is similar to last year’s “The Social Network.” Both films mostly take place in boardrooms and are filled to the brim with fiery conversations and even more fiery personalities, each following a nimble Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

But more importantly, both films set out to tell the behind-the-scenes-story of a shifting zeitgeist: “The Social Network” is a classic tale of friendship and betrayal set to the backdrop of a burgeoning form of communication while “Moneyball” is one man’s personal odyssey that artfully defied a hundred-year-old institution.

However, “The Social Network” is a piece of revisionist history. “Moneyball” doesn’t quite illustrate the impact of Beane’s ruse and therefore lacks the cultural impact that otherwise might exist. Then again, everyone and their uncle have a Facebook. Major league baseball, which has been consistently slipping in popularity for the last decade, isn’t always a hot topic, particularly when the matter at hand takes place off the field.

All that aside, “Moneyball” is still a well-constructed and briskly entertaining film. Miller navigates a tricky script from Sorkin and co-writer Steve Zallian, often working with flashback and cross-cuts to effectively squeeze in an enormous amount of time and detail into the film’s two-hour span.

Miller’s scrupulousness is perhaps his best asset. He has a tight grip on this film—seen in the noteworthy performances from its ensemble cast and its simple but efficient photography—but not so tight that it cripples under his weight.

But as skilled as Miller is, he has yet to prove himself as anything other than a competent studio director (he only stepped in to helm “Moneyball” after Steven Soderbergh dropped out). He excels in telling other people’s stories; perhaps one day we’ll get something more personal.