by Richard von Busack
THE NEW baseball film Moneyball opens with a Mickey Mantle's quote: "It's unbelievable what you don't know about a game you play every day." This unorthodox picture is clearly one of the shrewdest films ever made about the national pastime.
The source is Michael Lewis' nonfiction account of how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's, brought the science of statistics—sabermetrics—to that team. It happened shortly after the 2001 American League division loss to the Yankees. The Yanks first outspent the A's by a ratio of about three to one, then cherry-picked star player Jason Giambi from the A's lineup.
"We're the last dog at the bowl," Beane (Brad Pitt) says as he searches for a replacement for his first baseman. During a fruitless attempt to hire players from the Cleveland Indians, Beane meets the fictional Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a furtive and fat economics major from Yale. Brand is at Cleveland trying to sell the management on the controversial system of using on-base percentages as a way of forecasting a team's year.
Beane hires Brand and brings him to Oakland, but the initial failure of this seemingly foolproof system puts the pressure on both men.
Moneyball becomes a species of buddy movie, but it's a dry, unusual one, more interested in exchanged glances than back-patting. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) emphasizes Beane's solitude and inner fury. He throws things; he's even unable to watch games because he can't stand losing.
There's a certain advantage to having a director who admits openly to not being a baseball fan: The look of stadiums and the people in them seem to surprise him. The camera pauses, in a kind of shock, at the leering colossal face of Chief Wahoo in the Indians office.
Moneyball is largely exterior free. It mostly takes place in dingy offices inside the Oakland Coliseum or peering around the stadium's Escher staircases and damp Soviet concrete. But the film isn't claustrophobic. Ace photographer Wally Pfister brings in the kind of imagery seen on the poster: Pitt's Beane by himself in the vast outfield seen from the stadium's ramparts.
The montage of Beane's younger days as a baseball player is brutal. It consists of a series of tight close-ups of the player; the ball is not seen, but heard, as it swooshes past Beane's feckless bat like a howitzer shell. Stephen Bishop's David Justice, practicing in a batting cage, also suggests the hard labor of the game in a sequence as much about motion and muscle as the pictures of Muybridge's racehorse.
Moneyball is Pitt's movie, and the tightly restrained lead shows us an actor finally out of the orbit of Robert Redford. He gives a lean, mean performance, one of his best. The rest of the cast is up to his level: Robin Wright as his ex-wife; Philip Seymour Hoffman is coach Art Howe (his enormous battering-ram head shaven for the role).
Some will liken the script, by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, to Jerry Maguire, but it does without the traditional can o' corn of the typical baseball movie. When was the last time a team of winning misfits looked so inconspicuous?
A sneaky film, Moneyball blindsides you by stirring up those mile-wide, inch-deep feelings fans have about baseball, even as Beane insists that there's nothing to be sentimental about. Almost everyone has the feeling that something they loved terribly ended up stealing their life away, and at certain angles that's what baseball is to Beane.
Which sounds sour, but Moneyball isn't like that. We're given Beane's personal victory in earning and keeping the support of his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). And we also get the usual big-game triumph; Miller unfolds the moment thrillingly with alternate waves of sound and silence, when he re-creates the drama of a Sept. 4, 2002, A's/Royals game.
The film's accuracy can be disputed—the supposed brilliance of sabermetrics has detractors. Dramatically, though, the film has an internal honesty. You can believe in the kind of disenchantment that yields in certain sudden moments—say the miraculous last-minute rally in the ninth inning.