Moneyball (2011) 4/5 (1)
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Rating: The Good – 74.8
Genre: Sporting Drama
Duration: 133 mins
Director: Bennett Miller
Stars: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill

After the success of The Social Network, we were all waiting with bated breath for Aaron Sorkin’s next screenplay and it wasn’t long before we heard he (together with that other screenwriting heavyweight Steven Zaillian) was taking on the story of Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s and the then revolutionary system of identifying underrated baseball players through statistical analysis. It’s a similarly weighted premise as that which drove his Fincher collaboration in that it focuses on a unique couple of individuals and their plans to revolutionise a cultural pastime. Brad Pitt stars as general manager of the Oakland A’s Billy Bean who in 2002 decided to throw all traditional thinking on player recruitment out the window and brought in a young Yale economics graduate (played by Jonah Hill) to employ Bill James’ statistical system for identifying hidden value in underrated players. Losing the respect of his coaches, the media, the fans, and much of his back room staff, he persisted through a very rocky start to secure the longest winning streak in modern baseball history.

Moneyball is a peculiar film. It’s not really a baseball movie as the off-field drama takes precedence. Nor is it about winning which most sports films are. An honest interest in the welfare of those players left behind by the game rests at the core of this picture and it’s to the director Bennett Miller’s credit that he maintains this throughout. The lack of baseball action reinforces this but it also ties in with the more clinical statistical approach which Bean and his number crunching assistant were enforcing. That said, Miller is both inspired and disciplined in his use and incorporation of real game footage into the story and given the infrequency of it, it tantalises the audience and really juices up the more exciting moments in the film.

As mentioned, it’s the personal drama which wins out here as we are presented with a man who, through repeated losses as a player and manager, has reached an interesting moment of self-reflection in his life. And following this reflection, he decides to take on a system which bears no mercy, pity, or respect for its most essential workers, the players. The Billy Bean of this story has a complex relationship with the game. He deliberately avoids interacting with his players and refuses to watch the games live. He seems burned out and at times even resentful of the game but something must keep him so invested in it. He jogs around the field when exercising. Is the field just a tool to be used because it’s there or does he want to be close to it? On numerous occasions, he refers to the romance of the game. Most of the time it’s sarcastic but on a few crucial occasions, it’s meant. In his heart, is a burning ambition to change the system at the game’s base so that players stop getting chewed up and spat out when they fail to make the grade….. as happened to him. It’s a deeply personal crusade and it would certainly be worthy of a film’s focus if it had the right performance carrying it off.

Unfortunately, Pitt puts in a mis-measured performance. There’s a lot to admire in it but it just doesn’t carry the film like it needs to. He’s charming, he’s funny, and when needed, he’s angry but it all feels somewhat disconnected. It lacked the kind of hidden intensity that allows quieter performances to hit their mark. Furthermore, one wonders what Pitt thinks he’s doing with the constant eating in his films (something that was fine for the Ocean’s movies) but it’s becoming a distracting affectation. So personally focused a film is Moneyball that the only other actor to do anything of note is Jonah Hill as the number cruncher. It’s a surprisingly levelled performance and the unintentional humour which his character’s nervous poise but steely resolve produces is a treat.

Moneyball is an admirable film excellently directed and colourfully written. The dialogue is crisp and cool in that same mature way The Social Network was and there’s a strong central character and plot driving the piece. However, for all these positives, it still feels like there was a better film to be made here. In The Social Network, Fincher evenly balanced the excellent drama with what really interested the audience (the 21st Century concepts behind the Facebook). That doesn’t happen here and the statistical system which lies at the centre of everything isn’t really mentioned that often. Miller seems preoccupied with showing Pitt’s Bean driving around with a tortured expression, or sitting in his office with a tortured expression, or standing in his kitchen with a tortured expression. And all the while eating. The most exciting moments definitely come when Hill’s character points out his various target players and explains the theory behind his high valuations of them so why not bring this more into the story? Unless someone else tackles this story and allows the fascinating intricacies of Bill James’ system to share centre stage with the personal drama, we’ll never know what could’ve been but as it is, Moneyball is still a sharp, entertaining, and original film.

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3 thoughts on “Moneyball (2011)”

  1. Great review. I have this movie but have yet to watch it. I have read some good and some bad write up’s but the good, like your review, outweighs the bad. I’m looking forward to seeing this one.

    1. It’s definitely worth the watch. Not being American and given that baseball is the US sport I’m least familiar with I don’t have my finger on the baseball fan’s pulse so I can’t tell how fans of the sport will take it. But for me it didn’t give us enough of the sporting angle. Like The Social Network did with the internet and the digital generation, I was hoping Moneyball would look more at the cultural impact the system had or nearly had on baseball. Not so much tho.

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