Moneyball (2011)

Come with me for a bit, let’s fall back slowly to un-see Moneyball. That’s right. Ideally, I’d take you along with me this way, beginning with last night’s audience reaction in my hometown theater, back to the meaty minutes within the film where its fulcrum is held, then further back to a sketch of the plot and characters. It would be like instant replay, only in reverse. Then, we’d zoom again and again to that brief bit of dialogue, the pivotal exchange that would have us both cheering inside and wanting to jump from our seats to punch the air. Yeah, I’m that enthused for this film and would give anything if such an approach would work. As it is, you will just have to see the film, and I’ll have to upend my thoughts, slow down, and take it from the top…

Moneyball takes place in the gritty urban setting of Oakland, a city dimmed just a bit in proximity to its shining neighbor. If director Bennett Miller had shown it, the glint of wealth and polish from San Francisco pouring across the bay with the late day sun might cause your eyes to burn. Wisely, Miller is a much more subtle and finer artist who makes no such comparison. In Moneyball’s Oakland, within the A’s clubhouse, the cheap fluorescent lighting and harsh paint of the club offices do enough to make sharper the distinction between a team with its small market payroll and that of the one who’s just handed it a drubbing, the ever flush Yankees. Much of the film takes place in the drab workings of the Oakland Coliseum, and you can practically smell the feet tramping the worn indoor-outdoor carpet as fading banners from the A’s glory days hold tenuously outside, testament to something that hasn’t been seen there in a while.

Moneyball begins in October 2001, and loss of the American League title to the Yankees weighs heavily upon Oakland’s general manager, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. Beane is a man whose life has been shaped by a decision that he once made based upon numbers and whose ability to do his job is stifled by the lack of numbers representing team wealth. He’s in his forties, divorced, a manager who moans, “I hate losing more than I love winning.” He’s more anxious than superstitious, able to watch or listen to games only from the club weight room or his pickup truck. Pitt brings a depth and mystery to his characterization, a bit of off-kilter specialness that imbues his Beane with both a thinking person’s distance and a whiff of vulnerability. When he visits his daughter in the ultra sleek home of his ex-wife and her husband, there’s an almost imperceptible shift in his bearing that is more endearing than hundreds of sentimental screen moments in succession could ever be.

When he travels to Cleveland for some 2001 post-season trading, Beane meets a young assistant to the Indians’ general manager, the precise and articulate Peter Brand, played with wonderful freshness by Jonah Hill. Brand is recently graduated from Yale, with an economics degree and big ideas spoken credibly, if tentatively. Beane is so impressed with those ideas that he tells Brand, “pack your bags, Pete, I’ve just bought you from Cleveland.” Thus, the two men begin to reshuffle the 2002 Oakland team, looking far beyond the traditions of baseball to craft their lineup and, in the process, causing upset within the organization. Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent and witty screenplay cleanly propels the film with dialogue, pulling the audience along in the swoop of thought and play without once stooping to twist or manipulate.

It’s in the person of Billy Beane that Brad Pitt stretches into greatness. For me, he’s always been an uninteresting actor, his bland chiseling seemingly inhabited by nothing more than boredom, perhaps with his looks or celebrity. In Moneyball, he’s a person, a bit grizzled and weary, shadows crossing his face, ones that can’t be washed away by the fleeting nature of victory. It’s this central nugget of Beane’s character, the doubt and consideration, that’s delivered so well by Pitt more than halfway through the film when, in a few minutes of exchange with Peter Brand, Beane muses about the difference between the beige, forgettable nature of winning in professional sports, “the champagne, the money, the rings” — and what he wants it to mean. I could have kissed the screen.

If you are wishing for an easy feel-good film, one that fills you with a sense of triumph, you might shy away from Bennett Miller’s thoughtful release. But if you want to zig when zagging would be the comfortable choice, if you want to see a film about limits within the cults of money, success, and personal achievement, and then so many other things that you will take the long way home just to think about them all, well then, don’t be the last dog at the bowl. Race for your chance to see Moneyball.

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