Sunday, 18 December 2011

Film Review: Moneyball

When successful sports teams go on to win major tournaments people talk about difficult to pin down attributes such as skill, spirit and luck. Yes, one way of judging athletes is how hard they can whack a ball or how quickly they can get from point A to point B, but what if you could break all this down to a set of averages and statistics?

Based on the true story of Billy Beane (Pitt), Moneyball charts his transformation of ailing, cash-strapped baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, into bonafide record breakers. Poaching gifted young analyst Peter Brand (Hill) from a rival team, the two embark on a project which not only rejuvenated the Oakland Athletics' fortunes, but revolutionised the entire sport of baseball.

While in many ways Moneyball bares all the classic hallmarks of a great sports movie (underdogs, the 'big game', a former superstar lacking in confidence and a coach's rousing pep talk), surprisingly it features very little in the way of baseball. Certainly this is not a film where the players are the heros, reduced to mere spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations. Likewise, on-field antics are only ever portrayed through a haphazard trickle of stock-footage of the Oakland Athletics' 2002 season. Rather, Moneyball is more concerned with the behind the scenes of running a sports team. It's not passion or spirit that are the order of the day here, but the law of averages.

It is Beane and Brand's gamble which is of preeminence here. Losing his best players and sporting a meagre budget one-third that of the New York Yankees', Billy Beane turns to bean counter Peter Brand, a gifted young Yale economics graduate with no sports background. Brand develops a formula which calculates the percentages of how often a player gets on base, therefore increasing the likelihood of runs, as opposed to the conventional method of judging how well players can hit or catch a ball. Armed with Brand's blueprint, the two rummage through the bargain bin of baseball searching for players nobody wants, but who between them complement each other with their combined averages.

And yet, for a film about cold, hard numbers Moneyball still manages to show a surprising amount of heart. Berated by the haggard soothsayers who assume to represent supreme authority over all things baseball and the rest of what conventional wisdom has to say, Beane and Brand remain inextricably woven to an idea. Their fortitude is unerring, their impassioned dedication to an otherwise clinical methodology providing a capacious emotional payoff. You just want their plan to succeed, the new to put the arrogance of the old in its place. Most of all you want Beane - who never made it as a player himself - to prove all the prophets of doom wrong and to finally realise his dream of leaving an indelible legacy on the sport.

While verging on being irritatingly obnoxious, a trait which seems to come with the territory of being a General Manager in baseball, Pitt's Beane also has a cheeky charm which is equally, annoyingly, likeable. However it is Hill's soft-spoken humbleness which almost steals the show. You'll recognise his idiosyncrasies instantly but Hill does so well at underplaying the role that he'll have to be careful less he becomes a serious actor. Alone these two are great, but together they're even better. Pitt's Beane a ball of boundless energy and social intelligence coupled with Hill's Brand who's an understated genius in his own right make the real winning formula in Moneyball. Perhaps a small slight however is how focussed it is on Beane and Brand's effort. Seymour Hoffman's excellent role as surly and obstinate coach Art Howe for example should have been more central in proceedings.

Further, while film's home stretch is well done, it is perhaps a tad too downplayed, serving to leave a bit of a muted ending which somewhat attenuates the film's first two acts. If you're incredibly pedantic you could also pick at some of the temporal anomalies which pop up. Given that the film is set in 2002, you may scratch your head upon seeing flatscreen TVs - a time before they'd been commercially released - as well as Beane's daughter singing 'The Show' by Lenka, a song released in 2008. Admittedly there is also an incredible amount of incomprehensible baseball jargon, but the great thing about Moneyball is that this never takes away from something which is consistently enjoyable to watch.

Generally there's not a lot to dislike about Moneyball. This is a film less about baseball, more a fascinating insight into two men's methodology of creating a winning sports team than of the actual team itself. It is an alluring tale of genius, insanity and blind luck, and still as much a rousing sports film as it is about sticking it to the man. One of the most pleasant surprises of 2011.