How do you win a game when the odds are stacked against you? You change the rules. In Bennett Miller’s Oscar nominee Moneyball (2011), Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the team manager of the Oakland Rangers, a team that despite his best efforts always end up losing out to teams with vast economic resources, who will once the season is over buy their best players and ship them out.
Beane knows there must be a better way, but can’t change the culture of acceptance which dominates the club until he chances upon Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a bean counter at another club who has a radical idea of hiring players on the sole basis of a neglected statistic, the On Base Percentage. Beane assembles a team according to Brand’s theories and against the opposition of most of the scouts as well as the team’s manager, played by an oddly anaemic Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Moneyball arrived with a torturous production history, taking years to get to the screen and shedding directors and actors along the way: most famously in 2009 Steven Soderburgh was replaced days before principal photography was set to begin. The director who replaced him, Bennett Miller, has a background in documentary film making and has gone on to make feature films based on true stories. First came Capote in 2005; then Moneyball and he is currently working on Foxcatcher with Steve Carell to be released next year. The screenplay went through a number of rewrites, the latest of which was accomplished by Aaron Sorkin and the locker drama is right up his street, preferring the behind the scenes tensions and banter to the spotlight.
There is relatively little baseball – games are listened to on the radio, or echo through the corridors. By making the sport relatively incidental, it removes that dramatic paralysis which grips fictionalised sport and makes Pele’s overhead kick in Escape to Victory (John Huston, 1981) a multi-angled snore boat. What in real life would be a heart-stopping moment of spontaneous brilliance becomes ill-conceived and fake in drama. Moneyball could just as easily be about tiddlywinks.
So if it’s not really about baseball at all, what is it about? Statistics? Fortunately no. The Moneyball system is outlined but without the nerdish detail of the Michael Lewis book on which it is based. Rather it’s the bromance between nerdy Peter Brand and the ageing wonder-boy Billy Beane. There are some lingering looks, an insatiable urge to be together and the occasional delicate music cue which suggest that these opposites are kind of attracting. Billy Beane (and the Oscar nomination was deserved if only for Mr. Pitt having escaped the gravitational pull of the massive dumbness of that name) would undoubtedly have bullied Peter at high school and no doubt someone like Beane did, but here, on the far side of childhood and yet somehow still in the midst of it, there is a mutually advantageous coming together.
When we move away from this relationship and back to things like Beane’s relationship to his daughter (dully untroubled – he buys her a guitar and she sings him a nice song) or the travails of the team (a familiar they do badly, they do awful, they do well, they do really well, they don’t quite go all the way), a spark goes out. As the film goes on we realise that Beane is not quite as sure of himself as he projects and Brand grows in confidence. The performance of the two principles are excellent and the story well told.
Given the starry cast and the high profile shenanigans of the production it is also a curiously small (in a good way) and intimate film. The sidelining of the sporting action means the drama is less epic and less overblown. See as a counter example Oliver Stone’s mewling and puking Any Given Sunday (1999). Indeed, the victory of Moneyball is ultimately not going to be a trophy in the display case, but rather the realisation that Billy just can’t live without Pete.