Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

06Dec11

Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe). Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin et al. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rating: 12. Running time: 133 minutes. 

On the day I saw posters advertising New Year’s Eve – a blatantly opportunistic bullshit romcom packed with A-Listers, coming to us from the creators of Valentine’s Day – and a trailer for the new Mission Impossible (read: a new two hour recording of explosions and car crashes) – I also saw Moneyball. To put this differently: I saw evidence of how Bobby De Niro has traded in his status as cinema God and Scorsese muse for big pay-cheque, artless nonsense. I do wonder how he employs his infamous method acting skills when preparing for his latest role in Meet the Fockers 10. Even worse (at least De Niro is old, and thus perhaps entitled to cash in on a long, prestigious career) is Tom Cruise, who’s apparently doing the De Niro thing a few decades earlier. What happened to the dazzling young man of A Few Good Men, Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia fame? Gone, apparently, and content to star opposite Cameron Diaz in mindless spy films.

Which brings me on to Brad Pitt, who provides the starkest of contrasts, and seems set on single-handedly proving all prejudices about the interests of Hollywood actors wrong. His recent run of roles, apparently inspired by a desire to make his kids proud in the future, is only rivalled in quality by DiCaprio’s. Just think – he has worked with Iñárritu on Babel, Malick on The Tree of Life, Fincher (for the third time) on Benjamin Button, the Coens on Burn After Reading, Tarantino on Basterds and now, in what’s being sold as The Social Network 2, the magnificent Moneyball.

The similarities turn out to be minimal – both are, indeed, heavily dialogue-driven and revolve around serious boardroom meetings, and once more we have a delicious Sorkin script. But any assumption that the lines here are going to be equally rapid-fire fast and belief-defyingly witty turns out to be misplaced. Brad gets to spout out a handful of put-downs and discussion-enders, but nothing like on the Zuckerberg-scale. When they do arrive, though, there’s a deeply amusing hint of Aldo Raine that sneaks through in the smirks of superiority. Pitt plays Billy Beane, a failed youth baseball prodigy that settles for management, but faces the difficulty of competing with teams with $120m budgets, contrasted with his measly 40. Hiring an Economics major, his aim is to use stat-crunching methods to construct the mathematically perfect team, finding value in the market that’s invisible to the naked eye. He wants to do the equivalent of getting Wolves to win the Premiership, and in attempting to reduce an allegedly beautiful game to the bare bones of number analysis, he is of course ridiculed by old hands for perverting the sport, and also for dooming his club.

It’s a true story, and it’s all just quite remarkable. They may not quite manage to win the title, but we do see how after months of back-room maneuvering Beane turned the world of baseball on its head. His Oakland team won 20 games on the trot – an all-time record, and inspired countless changes of tactics by other teams in the transfer market. The joy of Moneyball is to see the internal team politics and the struggle to try something new. There’s thankfully few triumphant, Invictus-style victory scenes, and indeed there’s generally few scenes of the sport in question being played. When there is, the music stays calm, not seeking out any faux spine-tingling emotions. Instead we’re just left with Brad, smirking and fighting the system, and loving it when he gets the last laugh.

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