Saturday, 24 December 2011
"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" asks Brad Pitt's jaded team manager Billy Beane of himself, somewhere near the end of 'Capote' director Bennett Miller's engaging sporting biopic 'Moneyball'. Billy's relationship with the game is bitter-sweet, having given up a college scholarship on the advice of talent scouts only to come up short as a professional athlete, before moving upstairs into the frustrating and thankless world of sports administration. His love affair with the game may be in jeopardy but, as co-written by 'The West Wing' and 'The Social Network' scribe Aaron Sorkin, you suspect he'll come to bask in that romance again - and that we'll bask right along with him whether we care about the sport of not.
'Moneyball' is the intelligent, talky film you'd expect from Sorkin, who balances rapid-fire sporting jargon between top-end professionals with pithy, memorable one-liners. It's a drama with deft comic touches and populated by earnest, well-meaning characters for whom the proper running of a baseball team is a sacred vocation.
It begins with Beane's (relatively) modestly budgeted Oakland Athletics suffering a heartbreaking, but expected, end of season loss against the titanic force of the New York Yankees - a much better funded team, who compound the Athletics' misery by poaching their star player. Fed up with trying to compete against much wealthier teams using the same player recruitment strategy, Beane enlists the help of a Yale economics graduate played by Jonah Hill, who has come up with a whole new way of putting together a winning team based on a new set of principles founded in dry statistical analysis.
This philosophy sees the duo - who enjoy a surprising on-screen chemistry - recruit a roster of misfit, imperfect players long since overlooked by Major League scouts, our inherit love of the underdog being skilfully exploited to offset any reticence we might have at seeing the rules of this traditional game rewritten (with seasoned scouts being overruled by a young maths-whizz with no history in the game). All of baseball, including the team's taciturn head coach played by the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, think Billy has gone insane. The stakes therefore go beyond simple sport: if this bold new strategy doesn't succeed Billy will find himself out of a job - an unemployable laughing stock.
Pitt, who looks increasing like Robert Redford, is a force of understated charisma even as this serial loser (at baseball if not in life) who obsessively wants to compete but, at the end of one terrific sequence (that sees the Athletics break a hundred year old record), finds mere winning hollow. Billy doesn't just want his team to win: he wants his team to change the world. Anything less will plunge him into a depressive coma lessened only by the love of his precocious daughter (Kerris Dorsey).
If 'The Social Network' made computer coding and the founding of a social media website play as cinematic, then 'Moneyball' does the same for contract disputes, statistical analysis and the economics of sports management. We spend more time in the offices of the Athletics then we do on the field of play - though the film still has its share of lovably cliché fist-pumping sports movie moments.
'Moneyball' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and on limited release in the UK now.