Toward the front of history's 9/11 B-roll is the night when the New York Yankees won the American League pennant. Under the flash of fireworks, the sporting world's most loathsome force for profit over heart became America's team. The goat: Oakland's long-suffering Athletics.
There's no mention of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in Moneyball, director Bennett Miller's deft, deliberate rendering of the Michael Lewis book about sabermetrics. But in the timing of its release and in its depiction of Major League Baseball as a shadowy intelligence cabal, it's the latest entry in the catalog of post-9/11 thrillers disguised as '70s-referencing conspiracy pictures. Like Michael Clayton, Zodiac and even The Social Network, it articulates post-millennial dread with a post-Watergate syntax.
The America that Moneyball reminds us of — without iPhones and, as the 2002 baseball season starts, not yet fighting two wars — is a place still on the verge of some hard lessons about money, politics and conflict. At that moment, Miller's movie suggests, America's team should have been the scrappy, counterintuitive, dirt-poor A's. It's no spoiler to say that the A's are still without a World Series victory in this century. That failure to cauterize entrepreneurial pluck into foolproof enterprise is what gives Moneyball its bracingly of-the-moment potency.
Hang on, though — sabermetrics?
To its credit, Moneyball doesn't spend much of its two-plus hours attempting to explain the stats-worshipping sect of baseball's church known by that shorthand. (In fact, if the S-word is uttered at all, it goes by like an Armando Benitez fastball.) Native Kansan Bill James, the high priest of the sabermetrics movement, chants a gospel that screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin boil down to an easy-to-use mantra: Get on base. That three-word imperative drives the action in Moneyball the movie — action that takes place on land-line telephones and in shabby, cinder-block offices more than it does on a diamond.
"It's process, it's process, it's process," says one character midway through Moneyball, around the time that a more routine sports movie would settle for a training montage. And so it is. Moneyball is no less a procedural than a David Fincher movie. On the other side of the Bay from the terrified San Francisco of Fincher's Zodiac is the loss-terrorized city of Oakland, where Miller treats the process of assembling a baseball roster with the then-this-happened, then-this-happened urgency of Fincher's policier. There's the season, then the offseason, then the season. That's it. That's life.
But all you need to know — even if it's not all that Zaillian and Sorkin's sharp-elbowed but soulful script tells you about it — is that the players who get on base the most (regardless of means) are the players worth picking up.
Simple as that sounds, a stats-obsessed revolution in ballplayer contracts is a tough sell. So it's up to Brad Pitt, unusually transparent as former baseball pro Billy Beane, struggling to stay relevant in Oakland's front office, to make the case that rosters should be value-driven. The conventional wisdom — find a superstar and pay him superstar cash — still has its adherents, but teams in smaller markets (such as, say, the Royals) now have little choice but to embrace the search for undervalued athletes.
Miller uses casting to prove Lewis' point (but has it both ways with the wellcompensated Pitt on his payroll). Complementing Pitt's Beane is Peter Brand, a fictional composite of various Jamesian eggheads given lumpen form by Jonah Hill. An actor previously paid for neither subtlety nor intelligence, Hill is quietly believable as a shy, Yale-trained number cruncher. If the predictable bromance that binds Pitt and Hill is familiar territory for the Superbad co-star, his control and calm are new and, for the first time, leave you wanting more of him. In a small role, Chris Pratt, dumber on NBC's Parks and Recreation than anyone Hill has every played, gets on base again and again as well.
Forty-seven-year-old Pitt is the same age as Robert Redford was as the most elderly "natural" in the history of human movement. Age has gently widened and lined his face, and Miller has devoted no money to giving Pitt the CGI-Noxzema treatment that Fincher lavished on him (or, really, on his audience) in Benjamin Button.
A younger actor stands in for Pitt during the flashback sequences woven through Moneyball. And Pitt now registers a particular degree of masculine sadness. Even Moneyball's funniest moments don't stray far from Beane's regret. A five-tool player Pitt is not, but Miller allows him to examine figures through reading glasses, tear up at his preteen daughter's precocity, and enjoy a couple of barbell-curls-as-mental-turmoil scenes that edge near some of the more polished home-gym informercials. He's everything Pitt needs in a director.
Miller, MIA since 2002's Capote, has made up for lost time by making Moneyball two or three movies at once. It's a thoroughgoing entertainment, but its purposeful lack of discipline, which splits Machiavellian backroom argument with Bad News Bears misfitism, leaves his debt to other filmmakers too apparent. He nods, for instance, at Steven Soderbergh, the project's original director, by shoving a Wendy's Superbar of drippy foodstuffs into Pitt's mouth, recalling Pitt's always-eating character in Soderbergh's Ocean's movies.
There's more than a touch of Fincher's sodium-light palette here, too: 30-watt interiors and creeping jaundice. Even All the President's Men had the well-lighted offices of The Washington Post to occasionally remind us what Redford and Dustin Hoffman looked like. Moneyball plays with Beane's destination by moving him up and down concourse tunnels and on and off daytime highways, rarely sending him into light when a shadow is available.
Miller and cinematographer Wally Pfister (on loan from Christopher Nolan and his midnight-black Batman saga) like closeups, the darker the better. A couple of early scenes showing scouts pimping their prospects send Old Spice aftershave and Mitchum deodorant wafting down from the screen. But they also jam more men into those tight frames than they allow into the long shots of men at work — not just players but Beane, too. Miller uses the camera to remind you at all times that baseball's romance owes much to the loneliness of the man in the batter's box or on the mound or under the falling fly ball.
No wonder they're lonely — the whole of baseball may be out to get them. So what starts as a post-9/11 noir sets up the decade following the 2002 season as one of alarming economic indicators. The game has been a metaphor for too many things already, but Moneyball justifies one more: baseball as class warfare.