#24 — Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
Baseball thrives and withers on its sense of tradition. The national pastime and the grand old game, baseball has a professional legacy that no other sport can match. The Chicago Cubs, for example, played their first game in late April of 1876, two months before Lieutenant George Custer was felled at Little Big Horn. That long legacy has led to stultifying certainty over shaky truths conjured up by unskilled observation decades earlier and codified into unyielding practice. Well after the point that contradicting information was readily available, there were self-declared purists sticking to a belief in vaguely defined intangibles as the measure of a player and a team.
There were others that used increasingly sophisticated statistics to chip away at crusty baseball beliefs before Billy Beane took over as general manager of the Oakland Athletics, but they didn’t inspire a bestseller. Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game in 2003, five years into Beane’s tenure with the Oakland American League ball club, casting a brighter light on the GM’s unorthodox approach to roster management, driven by granular statistical analysis meant to get the most production out of every dollar of his team’s meager budget. When the book hit shelves, the Athletics were on their way to their fourth straight postseason appearance, a feat that was supposed to be out of reach for a team of their means.
In the film Moneyball, director Bennett Miller performs his own unlikely feat, making the conflict between spreadsheet studiers and disdainful traditionalists into riveting cinema. As with any sports film, Moneyball spends some time on the field, observing human specimens perform astonishing physical feats. But those scenes are less critical to the film’s success that the time spent in the stadiums offices, where Bean (Brad Pitt) and his assistant general manager, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), scour box scores and rosters to find the undervalued players who are e especially good at coaxing bases on balls and other similarly unflashy accomplishments that add up to wins. Moneyball is one of those films that thrills because it casts shining admiration on smart people solving problems. That the problem these people are solving is how to win more baseball games with fewer resources is almost incidental. As with the NASA engineers of Apollo 13 finding a way to bring seemingly doomed astronauts home safely, or the magazine journalists of Shattered Glass pushing past layers of subterfuge to get to the truth of fraudulent stories, the pleasure is in watching inspiration strike and be rewarded.
The screenplay is co-credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, two writers who have in common an intense fascination with process. Miller takes their narrative and works through it crisply, shaping the rat-a-tat dialogue into more naturalistic exchanges and letting drama emerge rather that jolt forward. In a way, he treats the film like a baseball game, which requires patience from the viewer but also holds the inherent tension that comes from the possibility that everything can change in a moment. All it takes is one swing of the bat, the right swing at precisely the right moment. Movies are much the same, reliant on a convergence of smartly crafted plans and lucky accidents. Miller’s mighty cut is true and fortuitous. Moneyball touches all the bases.