Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

Having been introduced to the joys of baseball by my partner, I was assured that we could watch this secure in the knowledge that, unlike most UK viewers, we’d understand what was going on. We needn’t have worried, I think. Despite it not really being the most obvious ‘sell’ to UK audiences, the film is a standard underdog story and, while the details might be impenetrable to anyone without basic knowledge of the sport, the overall message is clear.

Based on a real recent history, and on the book of the same name, Moneyball tells of how the Oakland A’s massively overachieved in reaching the playoffs but then, also massively outspent by their opponents, the Yankees (although there were a few other big money clubs also) falling before the World Series and finding all their star players being poached in the off season. Their coach, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) realises that he simply cannot compete on the field if he cannot compete financially and looks for another way.

On an unsuccessful trip to the Cleveland Indians to try and pick up some new players in trades, he notices a young, but distinctly unsporty, man giving advice against one of his proposals. Intrigued as to who this was and what the advice he gave was, he searches him out. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) is a Harvard economics graduate and he has some radical ideas about players’ worth. Completely rejecting the old methods of identifying “star” players, they look instead at statistics, trying to identify “overlooked gems”, the players who get good results whilst being consistently undervalued by everyone else. Together, Billy and Peter start a project to remodel the A’s around these new ideas, completely confounding and antagonising everyone else on the coaching staff, as well as their fans. In the face of this opposition, coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) chief among the opponents, initial results don’t look good and Billy Beane has to impose his will on the club and try to turn around the club before he loses his livelihood.

The plot is filled out with some background on Billy’s own playing career and a little about his current family life, both put in to explain him as a character and to raise the stakes dramatically. How close to reality the film manages to keep, I can’t say, thought the basic facts of Billy Beane’s team and the introduction of “Sabermetrics” are already common knowledge in the sporting world and a DVD extra makes great play on how much effort was made towards authenticity. Pitt brings a great deal of charisma to the role, and there are laugh out load moments – the relationship with Brand is terrific – but I wonder if, regardless of his sporting achievements, Billy Beane is really quite as damn likeable as Pitt portrays him.

A fun, feel-good movie with some interesting explanation of a modern sporting phenomenon.


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