Baseball has always been a favourite topic of filmmakers. From the quiet grandeur of The Pride of the Yankees to the silly antics of Major League and the Bad News Bears films; from the sentimentalism of Field of Dreams to the loving absurdity of Fever Pitch; from the inherent cynicism of Eight Men Out to the romantic nostalgia of Bull Durham and The Natural; from the musical dalliances of Damn Yankees to the feminist bravura of A League of Their Own. There have been great baseball movies and there have been lousy baseball movies, but I think I may have recently seen the absolute best of them all.
Bennett Miller's Moneyball may not be your typical baseball movie, as it looks at the behind-the-dugout numbers game more than on-the-field action (though there is that too) but it is that very same genre strangeness that makes the film the most purely enjoyable baseball movie, or even best sports movie in general, this critic has ever seen. Written by Academy Award winning screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian (writers of the last two David Fincher films, The Social Network and the upcoming Girl With the Dragon Tattoo respectively) and starring producer Brad Pitt, Moneyball takes on a much more artful feel than your typical sports movie (though don't get me wrong, winning is still the ultimate goal) while at the same time showing a complete and utter head-over-heels love for the game itself.
Based on the book of the same name (subtitled "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game") by Michael Lewis, which in turn was based on the at first maligned but eventually accepted science of sabermetrics which came to prominence in the baseball writings of Bill James (now a member of the Red Sox front office), Moneyball is the story of former player-turned-General Manager Billy Beane and his attempt to turn the Oakland Athletics into a winning team, despite the pitfalls of being a small market team in a world of Yankees and Red Sox and Angels and Dodgers and Phillies (oh my). Pitt's charismatic Beane says of his challenge, "The problem we're trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us. It's an unfair game." Even this diehard Yankees fan can understand the frustration faced by Beane upon a playoff elimination almost immediately followed by the loss of stars Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi to more lucrative contracts elsewhere.
Going to desperate measures - measures that seem at first to spit in the face of baseball tradition (at least that is the way the old-timer scouts see it, as does manager Art Howe, played stoically by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) - Beane hires a Yale numbers cruncher, played by a surprisingly subtle Jonah Hill, to get him the players he needs, and more importantly, the players he can afford. The duo (Hill's Peter Brand is a pseudonym for real-life former A's Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, now Vice President of player development and scouting for the New York Mets) use the aforementioned science of sabermetrics (a way of analyzing players using in-game activity and statistics) to find undervalued prospects that they can afford, and who will produce those all-important winning runs that it will take to be that all-important winning ball club. All this and a deep nostalgic love for baseball is what makes this film - easily one of the finest of the year - the richly textured yet surprisingly tender movie that it turns out to be. [09/21/11]