Movies: Moneyball

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by Raj Ranade

Moneyball has languished in movie development limbo for years and focuses on a story that’s a decade old, but it’s hard to imagine a movie that could be more tailor-made to the current cultural moment. This story of a baseball team trying to do a lot more with a lot less money is catnip for anyone whom the recession has pushed into coupon-clipping or budget-slashing – it’s a Rocky for Ramen eaters.

The film focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a general manager trying to keep his Oakland A’s competitive with a payroll that’s a third of a team like the Yankees or the Red Sox. Embarrassed by the creaky management wisdom of his aging scout team (judging a pitching prospect: “He’s got an ugly girlfriend. An ugly girlfriend means no confidence”), Beane turns to a Yale whiz kid (Jonah Hill) with a radical-for-the-time idea: using computerized analysis of player statistics to determine each player’s real worth. The film that follows is the rare sports movie with minimal interest in depicting the actual playing of sports, hewing instead to the template established by co-writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) in his past work, where smart people talk animatedly about smart things in back offices.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote) keeps things at a sober calm instead of Social Network‘s caffeine high, but that’s a wise move for this particular story. Instead of going for the easy melodrama of your average rah-rah sports picture, this film keeps a cool, journalistic emphasis on day-to-day process – deal-making, contract negotiating, player trading – that allows it to become richer than your traditional underdogs-make-good narrative. It becomes another movie about the shift to the information age, where a foresighted leader recognizes the overflow of data all around him (Miller plants radio commentary or TV footage in nearly every background here) and harnesses it to revolutionize an industry.

If there’s a problem here, though, it’s that the movie is awfully coy about how that harnessing actually took place. Anyone who isn’t terrified by the prospect of math is going to be frustrated with the movie’s hand-waving explanations of how this revolutionary team was built (I half-suspect that the vagueness is a clever advertisement for the Michael Lewis book the movie was adapted from).

But if the movie is a bit too afraid of the intellectual, the simpler human pleasures are immense. Pitt and Hill are both arguably as good here as they’ve ever been. Pitt has a relatively easy part to play here – the professional movie star is asked to play gruffly charming – but he nails it, capturing a leader with the warmth and charisma to effect massive institutional change, but who also carries an undercurrent of scary, single-minded zeal. It’s Hill who seems transformed, the typecast vulgar loudmouth here playing an outwardly meek man whose fiercely held convictions have a way of bubbling up to the surface at unexpected moments.

As mentioned before, it’s hard not to compare Moneyball to The Social Network given their stylistic similarities (although the quality of the latter is in a different, uh, ballpark). The interesting difference between the movies is that they seem to be ideological inverses of each other. In showing Facebook’s birth, The Social Network focused on the human costs of capitalism as well as the birth of a revolutionary enterprise, detailing the betrayals and ruthlessness unavoidable in the creation of such a company.

Moneyball, on the other hand, is pretty unambiguous in its hailing of what is basically a corporate triumph. It’s easy to envision a movie where Billy Beane is seen as a cynical, brooding leader who sacked experienced associates and long-time friends in order to adopt the latest, greatest corporate efficiency framework, and couldn’t even be bothered to actually attend the games (scenes where Hill is forced to lay off players actually are played for laughs here). But the movie bends over backwards to make Beane sympathetic, mostly through scenes where he eats ice cream with his tween daughter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you – a lack of ambiguity is a traditional characteristic of straightforward Hollywood pleasure – and I’m not saying the film is any kind of political tract, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this story of business victory, where a lean, efficient team stays competitive with spendthrift “Big Government”-esque behemoths, gets picked up as a Tea Party talking point.

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