Of course, beyond being a successful baseball movie, Moneyball happens to be a fantastic movie movie. The hype is real: this is like The Social Network, except instead of a questionably sympathetic anti-hero like Mark Zuckerberg, you've got Brad Pitt being all Brad Pitt-y and Jonah Hill as his Albert Brooksian straight man. Directed by Bennett Miller — and adapted with little trace of his signature snap by Aaron Sorkin, as well as Steve Zaillian — Moneyball is a quixotic tale about a man coming terms with the realities of his life, the realities his world and fighting the good fight even if he doesn't have a chance of winning. As John Henry (played by an uncredited and wonderful Arliss Howard) tells Beane during the downbeat final act: the first one through the wall gets the bloodiest. That the first through is an adonis makes Moneyball all the more subversive. You expect the bloody one to look like Jesse Eisenberg, not Brad Pitt.
If you haven't read the Michael Lewis source book (and read it), some background: a high school phenom ticketed for major-league superstardom, Billy Beane washed out in the late '80s, took a job as a scout with the Oakland A's and was eventually named general manager. Realizing the A's couldn't compete with teams like the New York Yankees in terms of payroll, Beane followed his predecessor (current Mets general manager Sandy Alderson) with a devotion to Bill James, a Kansas security guard-turned-most influential baseball mind of the last 25 years. James surmised that the way Major League Baseball teams valued players was wrong; that winning required runs, and the only way to score runs was to get on-base. As such, a .300 hitter who only got on-base 32 percent of the time was less valuable than a .260 hitter who got on-base 35 percent of the time. With this philosophy in place, and with astute drafting that netted him some of the best young pitchers in the majors, Beane's A's won an unprecedented amount of games for a team with a low payroll from 2000 through 2003, making the playoffs four straight seasons. The A's famously never won a World Series — making their accomplishments seem hollow to those only looking at the surface — but Beane himself was never that dismayed. As he told Lewis in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game: "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs."
If you've just seen Moneyball in theaters, you'll notice some differences right off the bat. For starters, in the movie, Beane is obsessed with winning the final game of the season, because he feels it validates all he's done. As far as we know, that wasn't really his feeling, and yet: Beane in both the book and the film abhors losing. Isn't it possible that his pithy comment to Lewis was only a cover for true feelings of anger and disappointment? His shit might not work in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want it to work.
You'll also notice that the A's trio of impressive young starters (Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder) aren't mentioned in the film. They aren't mentioned much in Lewis' book either, a criticism that still hasn't really been defended or explained. The A's can score as many runs as they want, but without pitching to stop the other team from scoring more, they don't win. It's a blind spot, but one you can forgive somewhat since the film doesn't actually discount their contribution; Moneyball just pretends they didn't exist.
(Also ignored: Miguel Tejada's monster 2002 season, which won him MVP honors.)
Not to bog this down with other defenses of the baseball inaccuracies in Moneyball (too late), but: Carlos Pena wasn't actually good (he was traded after playing 40 games and hitting .210); Art Howe was not the big dick that the film portrays him as (Howe himself is obviously unhappy), but rather an ineffectual journeyman whom Beane told how to stand in the dugout (true); Scott Hatteberg was playing regularly before hitting his game-winning home run in the A's climatic 20th straight win, and not benched because he was Beane's boy. Otherwise, good job, Moneyball, on getting the baseball right!
I use an unnecessary and snarky exclamation point there because, in reality, these are all nitpicks. If you didn't care that Mark Zuckerberg had a girlfriend during the entire time period depicted in The Social Network (in real life he did), then you shouldn't really care about all this. It's a movie. It's not a documentary. Some baseball details get fudged, but complaining about them — and giving the film a bad review because of them — is a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Which brings me back to the film itself. Again, it's phenomenal. I was disappointed when Steven Soderbergh was forced out by Sony at the twelfth hour, but Bennett Miller does his Soderbergh-y best in the finished Moneyball product. He gets so much out of his actors that it almost feels like robbery. Pitt has never been better. Never. He's a giant movie star, in a giant movie-star role, giving a quiet, reflective and self-sufficient performance. He sparkles like few actors I've seen onscreen in years. Hill — who despite any protestations from him or others, is still hilariously deadpan in Moneyball — dials everything back and makes Peter Brand (really a composite of people, notably Paul DePodesta) into a determined and whip-smart sidekick. (Beane and Brand, and Pitt and Hill, make for a great buddy team, the inverse of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter.) Even Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop, in small roles as Hatteberg and David Justice, both excel in key scenes opposite Pitt. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman is left to twist in the wind, making Howe the biggest and most ornery prick in the room. He's there because of the Miller/Capote connections, but you can't help but feel that someone older and more sympathetic would have made the Howe character really sing.
Miller also knows to surround himself with great below-the-line collaborators. Christopher Nolan pal — and Oscar winner — Wally Pfister handles the cinematography, and I cede to Stephanie Zacharek to explain why he's so brilliant:
"The picture has been shot, clearly with great care, by Wally Pfister (who often collaborates with Christopher Nolan but who has also done good, unflashy lens work on pictures like The Italian Job). At certain points, the golden stubble on Pitt’s chin is lit as if it were a wheatfield in a Terrence Malick movie. But it all works. Pfister doesn’t employ the tight closeup willy-nilly, and in some places, Pitt looks older, more worn-down, more laden with undereye baggage than he is in real life — that’s Beane’s exhaustion and frustration speaking through his very skin."Yes. That.
Toss in a wonderful score — Mychael Danna with help from the Friday Night Lights-y song "The Mighty Rio Grande" by This Will Destroy You — and Moneyball is the giant Oscar spectacle that the weeks of media coverage have built it up as. Will it will the final game? Doubtful — though Pitt could win Best Actor: he's that good and the Academy sometimes like to remember movie stars exist — but winning the final game isn't always what matters. Moneyball is the best movie of 2011 thus far, and it's hard for me to imagine seeing something that succeeds more during the next three months. If you love baseball, you will love it. If you don't, you will love it. As the song that Beane's adorable daughter sings during the final moments says: just enjoy the show.