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Moneyball (2011)::rating::4.5::rating::4.5

Moneyball spends just over two hours stripping the mythic grandeur from the game of baseball.  Along the way, it also deconstructs the sweeping narrative hubris of the baseball movie itself.   Instead of supernatural legends who smash out the stadium lights or the voice of God whispering over the corn crop, this film reduces the game to its barest form: Moneyball plunges into statistical analysis–spreadsheets and flow charts.  Its logic is simple, but brilliant: Which players do the best of job of getting on base?

That question launches the introduction of sabermetrics into modern sports.  It’s 2001, and Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) serves as the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics.  They’ve just lost the Division Series to the Yankees, and several of the team’s prime players (e.g., Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi) are about to hit free agency.  Stuck in a small market, with limited resources, Bean has to somehow cobble a championship team.

This conundrum leads him, metaphorically, out into left field.  During a meeting with the Cleveland Indians, Bean takes notice of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).  Young, dweeby, and quietly self-assured, Brand advises the Indians on their scouting reports.  After the meeting, Bean confronts Brand, and poses a difficult question:  When Bean himself was an enticing major league prospect, where would Brand have drafted him?  “The 9th round.”  Bean is impressed, probably because Brand’s response is both ballsy and accurate. With that, Brand goes to work for the A’s, and the team’s culture instantly changes.

There is instant friction.  In a standout scene, Bean assembles his grizzled scouts to discuss next season’s roster.  It quickly becomes an ambush.  With Brand sitting pensively in the background, Bean undercuts every recommendation his staff throws at him.  The A’s can’t replace the talent they’ve lost, but they can make it up “in the aggregate.”  Brand and Bean offer a new lineup of burnouts and has-beens, each with the blessing of sheer numbers.  These guys may be old, injury-prone, or trouble in the locker room, but they score runs.  As the scouts fume, Bean offers a glib summation:   “We’re about to be card-counters at the blackjack table.”

This philosophy earns Bean an instant enemy in the form of Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the team’s manager.  Old school to the core, Howe bristles at the idea of his team being run on Microsoft Office, and refuses to go along with Brand’s new strategy.  This includes benching Scott Hatteburg (Chris Pratt), the broken-down catcher Bean wants to trot out at first base. Much of the film’s second half becomes a battle of wills, pitting Howe’s instinct against Brand’s science.

Written by Steven Zallian (Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), Moneyball transforms the backroom dealings of professional sports into gripping entertainment.  The dialogue pops with Sorkin’s trademark flair, and well-placed humor keeps the film from becoming too dorky or pretentious.  Director Bennett Miller (Capote) seamlessly integrates new footage with archival highlights, just enough to make us feel like spectators in this particular baseball season.

As for performances, Pitt is at his absolute peak here.  Bean represents a deceptively difficult role–as a protagonist, he’s stubborn, superstitious, and aloof.  Pitt deploys his road-tested charisma to unearth the humanity beneath all that, and exemplify the likable human within.  As Peter Brand (who represents a composite of several real people), Hill plays more than a stat geek–he’s a nerd with a heart of gold.  Hoffman’s Howe comes across as a prickly taskmaster who fancies himself as the Nurse Ratchet of this particular asylum.  When Bean and Brand start stirring up the status quo, Howe immediately fights back.  (The real Howe wasn’t pleased with this portrayal, and it’s easy to see why.)

In the end, Moneyball isn’t so much about baseball as what’s beneath it.  Can America’s greatest sport be reduced to a binary enterprise of 1’s and 0’s, or is there still an unknowable magic to winning a championship?  (I suspect the answer falls somewhere in between.)  In either case, Moneyball uses intelligence and dramatic finesse to create one of the most compelling sports movies ever made.

133 min.  PG-13.  Hulu.

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