OSCARS REVIEW: "Moneyball" Defies Expectations
Beneath the screaming fans and dramatic displays of athleticism, there is a tough but true fact about professional sports: it's a business. Oh, yes, most athletes have a passion for the sport they play. Having a passion for what you do is a necessity for any job. But few players have undying loyalty to a specific team the way fans do. Derek Jeter has always wanted to be a Yankee and has never thought for a second of playing for any other team, but for most, switching jerseys is just a part of the job; and if a team offers a better contract, why not take it? The business aspect of sports goes completely against the passion held by the fans, and it's a side that some would rather not confront.
But the Best Picture nominated film "Moneyball" does just that as it explores how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, revolutionized baseball in 2002 by using an analytic, statistic-based approach to create a playoff-contending team with only $260,000. Based on the Michael Lewis novel of the same name, the film is directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote") and co-written by Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar last year for his work in "The Social Network."
The movie starts with Beane, played by Brad Pitt, watching as his star players become free agents and leave to teams with higher budgets and better contract offers. With his team in dire straits and thoughts of his rocky marriage and personal failure as a baseball player weighing heavily on his mind, Beane's life changes forever when he meets an Ivy League grad named Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill. Brand introduces Beane to an alternative method of team-building: a system that puts emphasis on objective statistics, particularly a player's on-base percentage. Beane hires Brand as his assistant and, despite objections and hostility from his scouts and the team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), begins to build a rag-tag team of undervalued and unorthodox players.
As you would expect from a script penned by Sorkin, the dialogue in the film is top-notch. Pitt and Hill work off each other incredibly well. One memorable scene in particular comes at the midseason trade deadline, as Brand watches in wonder as Beane makes rapid-fire negotiations between agents and other general managers in order to improve his bullpen, all while frequently putting his callers on hold to quickly ask Brand for advice. The pair also works well in slower, more emotional scenes, such as the one where Beane explains to Brand that he doesn't care about winning the World Series so much as he cares about the ultimate prize that he would earn by doing so: the knowledge that he reinvented baseball.
The film does have flaws in its pacing, though. When Beane and Brand aren't wheeling and dealing his way through controversy, the film drags through a subplot about Beane's relationship with his daughter. The scenes are meant to flesh out Beane more, but it just feels forced and tedious. "Moneyball" would have been much more streamlined movie if the focus had just stayed on baseball.
But when the focus is on baseball, boy does the film pick up. The film juxtaposes between fast scenes of the team's highs and lows and slow scenes of the main characters contemplating the situation. In keeping with the film's focus on the boardroom deals of sports rather than the on-the-field dramatics, the actual baseball scenes are kept to a minimum, and when they are used, they take a different approach. During one scene where the A's give up an 11-run lead, the sound and music is abruptly muted, leaving only the silent despair of Beane, Howe, and the players. In another film, you would hear the groans of the crowd and tension-filled music as the pitcher throws his mitt into the Gatorade cooler in the dugout. But in "Moneyball" the crowd is inconsequential, and the score of the game is only a catalyst for what the film is really about: the turmoil of a general manager trying to keep an emotional distance from the sport that once burned him and the aching desire of the players to take advantage of the opportunity Beane has chosen to given them. The jolting silence provided by sound mixer Deb Adair gives the film an extra burst of power, and she should receive an Oscar for her technical work on this film.
Still, of the six categories "Moneyball" has been nominated in, Best Sound Mixing is probably this film's best shot at victory at the Oscars this year. The film has also been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt), Best Supporting Actor (Hill), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. "Moneyball" is likely to find itself in the situation that "True Grit" was in last year: a film that is excellent but overshadowed by bigger contenders. If Pitt didn't win last year for playing the over-the-top Lt. Raine in "Inglorious Basterds," he probably won't win for this. Sorkin already won last year, and I don't think the Oscars are going to give him back-to-back honors. Hill stands a puncher's chance in his category, but it will be up to the Academy to look past his reputation as a comedian and give him a nod for breaking the chains of typecasting.
Still, even if it doesn't win a single gold statuette, "Moneyball" deserve a viewing. It defies the expectations of a sports film, becoming a brilliant story that can be enjoyed whether you're a baseball fan or not. It's a tale of controversy and reinvention that shows what happens in the conflict between groundbreaking pioneers and the old guard who will fight to stop the new ideas that threaten their dominance.
Reach writer Jeremy Fuster here