Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane tried to reinvent the national pasttime by casting aside a century of sports wisdom.
The new “Moneyball,” based on Beane’s tumultuous tenure with the California club, sticks to the basics. Fine acting. Whipsmart dialogue. A Cinderella team rewriting the history books. Yes, the tale of the 2002 Oakland A’s doesn’t supply a ticker tape ending, but for most of “Moneyball” reality provides more than enough dramatic oomph to power one of the better baseball films in recent memory.
Brad Pitt shelves his actorly tics to play Beane, the young and feisty GM tasked with replacing three superstars from his 2002 Oakland A’s lineup. The team’s couldn’t afford to keep three of its biggest stars – Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon. So Beane, huddling with a neophyte baseball executive named Peter (Johah Hill), decides it’s time for Plan B.
They ignore the sage advice of the team’s scouts and come up with their own playbook based on the work of sports statistician Bill James. Bunting is out, on-base percentage is in. Who cares if the team’s first baseman is an error machine as long as he gets on base he’s worth it?
The strategy stuns A’s fans and leaves manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pulling out the last whisps of hairs on his head. The risky moves don’t pay off – at first. The A’s stumble through the first few months of the season with little to show for Beane’s theatrics. But when Beane shakes up the roster mid-season something clicks into place. The Bad News A’s start winning, and suddenly the baseball world is buzzing about Beane’s bag of tricks.
If “Moneyball’s crackling dialogue reminds you of last year’s smash “The Social Network” it’s hardly accidental. Aaron Sorkin, who took home an Oscar for “Network’s” screenplay, co-wrote “Moneyball” along with Steven Zaillian of “Schindler’s List” fame. The movie doesn’t sacrific character for comedy, but you’ll howl all the same over Beane’s improbably story. The screenwriters capture the crusty old scouts shooting daggers at Beane during a planning meeting as nimbly as they show Beane’s daughter fretting over the heat her father is taking for his unconventional approach.
Pitt’s Beane isn’t a hero out of central casting. He’s arrogant and has little patience for those who don’t appreciate his approach to the game. Pitt’s physicality reminds us, along with some unnecessary flashbacks, that Beane was once a five-tool prospect destined for greatness. But his potential never took hold, leaving him to work behind the scenes for the game he loves despite its economic disparities.
The film builds toward the A’s remarkable winning streak that year, and it’s here where real life supplied plenty of dramatic fireworks. But “Moneyball’s” final 20 minutes is a fruitless search for the happy ending reality didn’t supply.
“Moneyball” renders baseball in all its imperfect glory, from the superstitions hanging over the teams to the ego-driven superstars on the cusp of retirement. Fans can argue about the merits of Beane’s approach, but it’s hard to imagine a livelier look at the inner workings of a small market club with big-city dreams.
(Photo: Brad Pitt plays an unconventional GM trying to bring a pennant to a small market club in “Moneyball.” Sony Pictures)