Ahhh Baseball…. Anyone for a game of futuristic cricket with imaginary, subjectively placed stumps and lots of spitting?
In 2002 the Oakland A’s went on a record breaking 20 game winning streak. Having been stripped of their star players in the off-season and shackled by a relatively small budget it was a remarkable run. Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and penned by not one but two Oscar winning writers, Steven Zaillian (Schindlers List) and the red hot Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), ‘Moneyball’ follows the ups and downs of the A’s season and the personal journey of their General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt).
Being British my experience of Baseball has been limited to watching the occasional game on holiday and playing rounders with a tennis racket at primary school (where I would regularly hit timely home-runs and make telling contributions from a variety of positions in the field). I’m therefore completely ill-equipped to make any comment on the accuracy of the storytelling and portrayal of real life events and characters. All I can say is that as a massive sport fan, I was in my element. It’s an amazing sporting story that is vividly brought back to life.
Billy Beane, frustrated by his team’s inability to hold onto its star players due to the massive financial gap between the A’s and bigger clubs, embraces a revolutionary new method of rating potential transfer targets and analysing the game. The method is brought to Beane’s attention by a nerdy, overweight Economics graduate called Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who seems to fit into the world of professional sport about as well as Barney would on the Death Star. His method isn’t based on the traditional subjective traits used by scouts, such as a players technique or jawline, instead it is driven by statistics. It proves to be a controversial move. Beane has put his neck on the line by alienating his now redundant scouting team and assembling a team of misfits and MLB rejects around Brand’s theory. After a poor start to the season he is under pressure and battling the baseball establishment. If the gamble doesn’t pay off and the season is a failure, his reputation will be damaged beyond repair. Gradually though results change and the rest as they say, is history…
It’s not an easy business recreating great sporting moments, many such as ‘Invictus’ have failed. After all you can’t beat the real thing. In this case though, I was sucked in by the real life footage/commentary, which is used to terrific dramatic effect and seamlessly linked with the filmed scenes. It also adds a bit of a timeless quality to the film. My lack of knowledge/complete ignorance of the events certainly helped as well, I had no idea if they were going to win that unbelievable 20th game, or if they would then go on to win the World Series. As that 20th game began slipping away from a seemingly unassailable lead, I was sinking into my chair. As a sport fan I’ve experienced that horrible feeling too often before…it hurts (I’ve tried hard to bury my memories of Scotland leading Wales by 10 points with 2 minutes to go in the 2010 Six Nations, only to concede 17 points in 120 seconds to lose by 7!)
Pulling off the on-field stuff is an achievement, but it is in the offices and back corridors of Major League Baseball that ‘Moneyball’ really excels. ‘Moneyball’ is as much a film about Baseball the business as Baseball the sport. The best sequence of the film is played out in an office, as Beane expertly plays other GM’s off against each other during a rapid series of phone calls, in order to sign his top transfer target. Brand suggests the player based on his stats and cost-effectiveness and Beane gets him using all the dirty tricks of the trade. Street-smart and book-smart working together in perfect harmony. It’s a brilliantly written and acted scene that ends with an awkwardly hilarious fist pump from Brand.
Brad Pitt is better than I think i’ve ever seen him before in the central role, bringing together the two sides of Beane’s character. He seems to be on quite a run after his performances in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and ‘The Tree Of Life’. I also had no idea that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was going to be in it until he popped up, so that was a bonus! He really can play anyone. Jonah Hill was good, but the Oscar nomination seems unbelievably generous!
With the financial problems that currently seem to be plaguing British Football Clubs, ‘Moneyball’ does have some relevance to sport over the pond. It flirts with important questions about the ever increasing role of money in professional sport, but never dwells on them.
Finally, their is something particularly striking about ‘Moneyball’… the lack of any romantic relationships. I can’t remember the last film I saw with no romance in it! ” How can you not get romantic about baseball?” Beane says after one of his better days, and that’s the closest we get.
Without doubt ‘Moneyball’ is a very good film, but being honest there aren’t any truly great scenes or performances to elevate it further, at no point does it really explode into life. Still, it is one of the best of 2011, and a must for any sport enthusiasts…. even British ones.
Best Moment: Billy Beane expertly playing other GM’s off against each other in a series of frantic phone calls.
Memorable Quote: “When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt him.”