The story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget, by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players.

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Pitt's veteran performance sparks winning treatment.

During Moneyball, director Bennett Miller (Capote) repeatedly shoots his leading man, Brad Pitt, in tight close-ups. The actor’s familiar face, once blissfully handsome, now has character – i.e. signs of ageing – and framed from chine to forehead Pitt does something that has long eluded him: his stillness conveys emotional meaning. The bland, beautiful Pitt, who once sat opposite Peter O’Toole in 2004’s Troy and simply faded out of a crucial scene, has slowly been updated. You can read his internal thoughts, particularly the pain of a failure that can’t be excised. In a film about determining the true value of someone, Miller has found an unexpected bargain.

Adapted in turn by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) from the 2003 non-fiction best seller by Michael Lewis, Moneyball is nominally the story of the Oakland A’s, a Major League Baseball franchise whose operating budgets is the lowest in a competition dominated by financial giants such as the New York Yankees. After a successful 2001 season, when they made the playoffs, Oakland couldn’t afford to keep their best three players, suggesting that their 2002 season would be diminished.

It isn’t, because the team’s general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), and his new sidekick, Yale-educated economist Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), change the way they evaluate and choose players. Statistical analysis – a process known as Sabremetrics – offers a different set of numbers; getting to first base is all-important, being patient enough to wait for a poor pitch is crucial. This, of course, is an affront to a century of baseball wisdom, and Oakland’s veteran scouts, rounding and deeply tanned from decades sitting in bleachers, are appalled by the duo’s seemingly contrary choices.

'A lot of pop off the bat", 'good face", 'ugly girlfriend means no confidence" – these are their well-worn maxims. It’s easy for Beane to reject them because in his youth, seen as a 1979 prodigy played by Reed Thompson, he was a mythic 'five tool guy", a future superstar. But Beane never got past the minor leagues (he couldn’t control his temper when he experienced the previously unknown sensation of failure) and it’s his anger about this, both as a kind of self-lacerating hatred and a disdain for the system that persuaded him to opt out of college, that underpins both Pitt’s performance and Miller’s movie.

In Moneyball Pitt’s easy charisma comes with a percolating darkness. Beane doesn’t even watch Oakland play, implicitly believing that even his presence in the crowd will drag them down, and he contains his fury until he’s alone. Miller’s achievement is to balance out those opposing qualities, while initially avoiding the mythic qualities that lurk beneath so many baseball films. Early on he shoots various stadiums through narrow concreted tunnels, more like bunkers than sporting fields, and for the first two acts the stirring echoes of The Natural and various other titles in the genre are kept at bay.

Lewis’ book not only covered Beane, it also extensively featured Bill James, the outsider who essentially created Sabremetrics in the 1970s, and the stories of the various players given a second chance by Oakland because they were cheap and statistically suited. Lewis was able to intermingle the numbers and the character traits, so that they served as corollaries. The movie is focused on Beane – although there is an affecting turn by Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg, an injured catcher turned into a first baseman with severe performance anxiety – and his efforts to keep his experiment together; Bill James gets a still image and a passing reference in dialogue.

The idea that an individual will use intuition and gut instinct to triumph over established reason and a flawed establishment is common in the cinema, but in Moneyball it’s the imposition of order and the ruthless use of logic that’s the change agent. The numbers, according to the rumpled Brand, who is played with modest embarrassment and quiet determination by the usually loud Hill, actually do make sense.

The relationship between Beane and Brand is the movie’s centre, and the intermittent focus on Beane’s fretting 12-year-old daughter (Kerris Dorsey) and a disapproving former wife (Robin Wright), adds little beside a well-executed pay-off when the team comes good (and a single wry scene from filmmaker Spike Jonze, as a passive-aggressive new age millionaire Beane’s ex has married). There’s also not a great deal for Philip Seymour Hoffman to do as Art Howe, the scowling head coach who won’t pick the players Billy has chosen.

The movie is more than agreeable, but it works very hard to find a stirring conclusion among a handful of flawed candidates, which include a mid-season winning streak that breaks historic records and Beane being offered his equivalent position in Boston for an astronomical salary; Mychael Danna’s score becomes ever more stirring. But baseball’s mythology, which Moneyball coyly wants to surrender to, is the exact thing that Beane and Brand are struggling against.

There is, on reflection, a tougher, more exacting film to be found in Moneyball. It’s in Pitt’s performance, which is sometimes painfully honest without being actorly, and the idea of a man who can’t get satisfaction from his endeavours if the season ends with a single loss. A spiteful refusal to yield is becoming a key element in Pitt’s screen presence, and with his strong work in Moneyball and The Tree of Life it’s clear that in middle age he could do things that Hollywood’s scouts never foresaw.

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Details

M
2 hours 13 min
In Cinemas 10 November 2011,

Genres