I have no idea how “inside” Moneyball actually is, but it certainly feels like the real deal. As the movie hangs out in major-league locker rooms and dugouts, the smell of leather and chewing tobacco seems to waft from the screen.
Based the book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball tries to dramatize the rise of statistical analysis in Major League Baseball. Sounds thrilling, I know, but director Bennett Miller (Capote ), working from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, gives this the snap and crackle of a timely behind-the-scenes documentary. If anything, Moneyball could have benefitted from more stats and less conventional drama.
Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who first fully committed to this approach – known as sabermetrics – in the early 2000s. Distressed by having to continually compete with the deep-pocketed New York Yankees, Beane hires an economics whiz kid fresh out of college (Jonah Hill) who has developed a computer-generated strategy for choosing players based on their statistical significance rather than their price tags. Moneyball proceeds to follow these two – and their unusually assembled team – through one tumultuous season.
The best scenes are those in the back rooms: the scouting command center where grizzled veterans yammer on about “intangibles” while glaring at the kid’s computer; a rival general manager’s office where big-time trades are bantered about with Beane. Pitt is a delight in these scenes – quick and witty, but always with a note of weariness. We understand that Beane, a former player who never amounted to much and has been laboring under a shoestring budget as a general manager, turns to sabermetrics out of desperation more than anything else.
The movie has a similarly skeptical faith in the numbers. Perhaps worried that the baseball stuff will bore some segments of the audience, Moneyball throws in a few conventionally dramatic storylines: flashbacks to Beane’s own recruitment and playing days; a scene or two with his ex-wife (Robin Wright); a handful of moments with his teen daughter (Kerris Dorsey). These aren’t bad moments, but they’re unnecessary. Miller and his team make the stats stuff fascinating enough on their own. By forcing the familiar drama, Moneyball undervalues its own worth.