When the Miami Heat acquired Lebron James well over a year ago, it was the only thing the sports media could talk about. James, the best basketball player in the NBA, was joining a roster that already boasted Dwayne Wade, perhaps one of the top three players currently in the league, and had also pulled in Chris Bosh, another NBA superstar. Nothing like this had ever been seen in basketball, and within hours the conversation turned to Miami’s potential to go the NBA finals year after year after year. Sure enough, they ended up in the finals in their first season as a team…and lost. The reason I bring this up is because, looking at the cast, crew, and history of the film Moneyball, it’s hard not to see the all-star squad comparison. It’s got a supporting cast of legitimate talent, from Robin Wright to Jonah Hill to Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film’s director Bennett Miller is helming just his second feature, after his first (Capote) got him a Best Picture and Directing nomination. Then there’s Brad Pitt, the Lebron James of Hollywood. And much like the Miami Heat, the group that came together to make Moneyball, though objectively successful, end up feeling, frankly, a bit lackluster.
The true story of Billy Beane (Pitt) is indeed the stuff of movies. Drafted by the Mets, he chose The Show over a Stanford scholarship, and promptly became a bust. After six seasons struggling in the Majors, Beane began work as a scout for the Oakland A’s, and within a decade he found himself the General Manager of the team, adopting his predecessor’s sabermetrics approach to building a team (the book/film takes some liberties with reality, suggesting that Hill’s Peter Brand introduces Beane to this concept). At the heart of Moneyball is Beane’s bull-headed devotion to this economical method, and the sheer force of opposition he encounters. As far as we’re concerned, nobody is willing to give this actuarian technique any merit, and not until Beane and his A’s are able to do the unthinkable is credit given where it’s due.
Personally, I’m not much of a baseball fan. Going to the park is fine, but I spend more time looking for the beer man than watching the game, and by the 8th inning I’m usually ready to head home. The only reason I bring this up is because Moneyball has a lot to say about the romance of baseball. It comes up initially because Beane’s technique is so at odds with that romance, but in the end, like any good baseball movie, the lights come on and everybody gets stars in their eyes. Love letters to the sport formerly known as “America’s pastime” aren’t uncommon, and generally err on the side of poetry.
It’s when Moneyball moves away from platitude that it truly produces, because in the end, this isn’t a film about baseball. It’s a film about a man trying to change baseball, which is plenty romantic in and of itself. Brad Pitt as the charming and intense Billy Beane is the fulcrum of the story, not only giving us most of our much-needed exposition but serving as the film’s heart. Beane is enigmatic and bull-headed, often letting his forward momentum do the work for him. At times this feels like a film about a man playing chicken with ten people at once, and making all of them flinch. At other times though, this is a film about how likable Brad Pitt is, and that’s not much of a foundation.
Nothing about Moneyball is bad. It’s got a solid script, a decent soundtrack (though it is, at times, uncannily reminiscent of the Friday Night Lights score), a noted mythology, an excellent cast and a sure-bet leading man. But the script is subdued, and a soundtrack is just a soundtrack; the mythology has been contested and a quick Wikipedia perusal reveals the slight departures from truth; and the actors aren’t really given all that much to do. Philip Seymour Hoffman, for all his devotion to the portrayal of a gruff Art Howe, ends up in three or four scenes, serving as particularly talented window dressing. Even Brad Pitt, who is onscreen constantly, gives a performance only just in his top ten or fifteen. The long and short is that this is a very well-made, well-intentioned film about something that actually happened, and movies about real life have to work twice as hard. They don’t have the luxury of convenience when it comes to dramatic peaks and valleys, and can often end up feeling flat. A great “Based on a True Story” this may be, but a great film, period? Not so much.