Aaron Sorkin seems to have a knack for this kind of work. Take The Social Network, a film that will forever be known as the one about Facebook, even though it’s not really about Facebook, but about its socially challenged founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Now we have Moneyball, a film about baseball that isn’t really about baseball. Moneyball tells the true story of the General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), attempting to build a competitive team with one of the smallest budgets in the league. It seems like an insurmountable task, until Beane meets a young man called Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has an unconventional idea that you can build a team using statistics.
This certainly is not an easy sell – a true story where baseball and maths collide. Then again, neither was The Social Network, as anyone who saw the comments on IMDB when the film had just been announced (“are you kidding me?”, “how can this be serious?”). The premise of Moneyball though is not exactly hard to believe, it’s just difficult to see how this can go well.
First let’s consider the fact that it’s a sports film, a genre so ridden with clichés it’s hard not to fall into a trap. Some of the sports movie characteristics remain in Moneyball – the underdog hero, a situation where it looks like victory is sealed when it all falls apart, and a situation where there is no hope before a miraculous comeback. The one thing that makes this different from any other sports movie is that, well, it’s not really about sports.
This is a film about Billy Beane, a man who just can’t help being good at what he does in a field he never wanted to be a part of, and a young man who has just entered his first job attempting to take on the established order. Instead of looking for baseball players who are good at hitting the ball, throwing, running, and catching, Beane and Brand just want the players who statistically have the best chance of scoring runs. The scouts, who act as though every word they say should be gospel, stare back at Billy Beane as though he’s just tried to steal their kids.
It does all come rather unexpectedly, but this is a really superb film. There is a lot of talking, and we tend to spend most of our time moving from one office to another, but it is still surprisingly riveting. Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian make a great writing partnership, Zaillian for the most part containing Sorkin from allowing the characters to talk for long periods of time and at a brisk pace, but there is still sharp dialogue through and through. Director Bennett Miller (best known for Capote) does a good if slightly understated job, vaguely reminiscent of that from David Fincher on The Social Network.
There’s no chance of Aaron Sorkin stealing anything thunder here though. All the attention is firmly directed where it should be, and that’s at the mesmerising performance from Brad Pitt, a man who bravely stood by this film when it went through many directorial changes before production finally started. It was definitely worth it though, hanging on to a genuinely uplifting film, that is possibly one of the best sports films of recent years, and one of the highlights of 2011. If there are no Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Lead Actor, and Best Film Oscar nods in 2012, then something is clearly wrong with the system.
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