I’m generally not a huge fan of sports movies (as my reviews of Hoosiers and The Longest Yard can attest). Virtually every sports film ever made is some variation on the underdog story. What separates the great sports movies (This Sporting Life, The Hustler/The Color of Money, Fever Pitch [perhaps only half a sports film as its about being a sports fan but I love it], Rocky, Bull Durham, etc) from the rest of the pack is the skillful ways in which they deviate from this formula. Whether it’s the team/individual failing at the end (Rocky), focusing more on characters than the sport itself (This Sporting Life), or exploring a darker underside of these pastimes (The Hustler), great sports films try to be something a little more than just a narrative-imbued version of a sports game. Maybe I don’t love sports movies because I’m not especially into sports, but if there is one sport that I adore (even if I rarely find the time to watch it), it’s baseball. There’s something peaceful and relaxing about a day at the ballpark (some call it boring) that other sports can’t provide (for me). Aaron Sorkin penned the script of the adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction baseball novel, Moneyball, and like virtually all of Sorkin’s work, this is sharply scripted and mature cinema that even non-sports fans can appreciate.
Moneyball is the true story of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). After the Athletics lost the 2001 ALDS to the New York Yankees (the combined income of the A’s was $37 million to the Yankees $120 million [or something close to that]), Beane realizes that if his destitute and financially strapped A’s are going to be any competition, he’s going to have try something new. While trying to find players to replace their top three guys (who had all jumped ship at the end of the season to the Yankees and the Red Sox), Beane meets Peter Brandt (Superbad‘s Jonah Hill) who was a player analyst for the Cleveland Indians. Pete subscribes to a radical and statistical driven model of baseball that promises to find top-tier talent at bottom-floor prices by ignoring all of the collected wisdom and assumed “common sense” of your average baseball scout. Beane brings Brandt to be his assistant GM, and while they fight scouts and managers who don’t think this new approach has a shot in hell of succeeding, Billy Beane and Peter Brandt set out to turn the baseball world upside down.
What was the magic moment when Brad Pitt stopped suffering from accusations that he was nothing more than overrated pretty boy and became someone that we could without irony call a first-rate actor? Much like Leonardo DiCaprio (though not quite as talented as Leo), Pitt has had to deal with a lot of cynicism about his acting ability since he’s a handsome guy. Fight Club was likely his first stand-out role for me, but the obvious answer to this question would be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which earned Pitt his first Best Actor Oscar nomination (he was nominated for best supporting actor for 12 Monkeys as well). Well, while I’m not quite ready to call his acting her an Oscar-winning caliber performance, he certainly deserves the recognition by the Academy through the nomination he received for the film. Jonah Hill was also nominated for an Oscar, and while I’m at a loss about what was so Oscar-worthy about his performance, it was nice to see just how far he’s come since being the guy buying the goldfish boots in The 40 Year Old Virgin and suckling from a busty woman for 12 hours in Grandma’s Boy. Jonah Hill proved that he can tackle dramatic material as adeptly as he does comedic fare.
Like every script Aaron Sorkin’s written (The Social Network, The American President, and even Studio 60), Moneyball pops with life and intelligence. The film gets into the nitty-gritty and dirty side of baseball, and it’s chock full of technical information and insider details that will make every baseball fan squeal with delight. Yet, Sorkin never lets the film bore you with minutiae (even though there’s plenty of it). Instead, he adds these expository monologues/dialogues into emotionally charged and entertaining moments. If you thought it was impossible to write an engaging scene about a talent scout meeting, you’d be wrong because Sorkin imbues these seemingly small moments with undertones of new school vs. old school, and business versus a love of the game. You see Billy Beane and Pete Brandt trade and cut several different people on the team, and while some directors/writers’ first instinct would be to oversell the moment, Sorkin wisely decides to err on the side of subtlety and nuance. One of the reasons I’ve never been able to stand most sports movies is that they try to beat you over the head with bombastic emotion and carefully guided audience manipulation. Sorkin’s script instead allows the viewers to intellectually engage themselves with the material and come to their own conclusions about whether Billy was right or wrong. There certainly are emotional moments (the streak scenes especially) but the film never makes things too black and white.
Does the film have flaws? Sure, but they’re mostly the kinds of things only occasionally snobby film critics like myself would notice. It’s shot very conventionally. There isn’t much artistry to the cinematography. You place a Sorkin script with Fincher directing (The Social Network) and you get fireworks. Here, Sorkin’s words have to carry the weight of the whole film and since they’re so brilliant they mostly succeed. I just wish the production of the film had been as riveting. Any sports fans should know this is an obviously must-watch film, particularly if you love baseball as much as I do. Even if you aren’t into sports or hate baseball, you don’t get scripts like this very often. I would be very excited to see this movie take home the Oscar for Best Adapated Screenplay (and for Midnight in Paris to win Best Original). Aaron Sorkin reminds us again why he (along with Charlie Kaufman) is one of the all time great script writers, and while this wasn’t the best film of 2011, it was still a truly great one.
Final Score: A-