Moneyball Dir. Bennett Miller

[Sony Pictures; 2011]

Styles: sports
Others: The Social Network, Capote, The Cruise

Like David Fincher, director Bennett Miller has a crisp talent for streamlining broad issues that are usually only understood by geeks and/or experts. Like Fincher, he insists on perfection in the look and structure of his films. Like Fincher, he focuses on obsessive personalities who do what they feel they have to do despite any consequences. But unlike Fincher, he refuses to take a pop outlook on the cruelty of life. Where Fincher has put his obsessives (Robert Graysmith, Mark Zuckerberg) through enormous pain, Miller is much more sympathetic, if not the greater director.

Moneyball, Miller’s first film in six years, is about Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a former pro-baseball phenom who was recruited, against his better judgement, right out of high school but who failed to develop into an MLB star. Fifteen years after his baseball career, Beane is General Managing the Oakland Athletics into repeated post-season failure while nursing a deep regret of opting to play in the majors instead of accepting a scholarship to Stanford. The twin demons in Beane’s life are leading the A’s to loss and having lost as a pro; he’s one of those guys with enough talent and success to make less fortunate people envious, but who never quite made it to a level at which he’s content.

Ripe material for a baseball movie. Only Miller, like Fincher with his varied obsessions, is hardly interested in the ostensible tropes of the story. This is an underdog baseball movie from a man more interested in the politics and economics of pro sports than whether the underdog, some struggling pitcher, will find enough heat left in his arm to make it through one last perfect game (or take your pick of baseball movie clichés). Miller would rather shoot the jowly old veterans who chew tobacco and talk about the rocky ride that is managing a pro baseball team. Beane, incessantly chewing sunflower seeds at the head of these meetings, has lost his faith in the magic of the old men’s baseball. This movie isn’t about regaining that faith, but how far Beane will go to invent a new one.

Playing by the rules didn’t work for Beane as a player, and it’s not working for him as General Manager. So, while off in Cleveland fishing desperately for young talent to recruit, Beane meets Peter (Jonah Hill), a Princeton economics grad with a novel statistical approach to the game, and brings him to Oakland. Back home, they exercise Beane’s dictatorial power over the A’s, leading them into a new season using Peter’s strategy of baseball by pure numbers. While this scenario is indeed based on a true story, the movie gives Beane credit for bringing the idea to the A’s when it seems that the numbers game was actually begun by the previous GM and only carried to conclusion by Beane. Still, the essential quality of Moneyball (or its essential flaw, if you happen to love sappy sports films) is that Beane’s cold approach to winning is laid out within the context of a movie that nevertheless truly shows love for baseball.

A running gag has Beane judging players purely by their numbers, then giving the poor performers the axe with the pragmatic air of a battle-scarred veteran. In your average baseball movie, this would be the work of the villain, gutting the heart of a team because of his pursuit of wins and, by extension, money. Beane is resolutely the hero of this movie, and his methods are seen in no uncertain terms as being good for the A’s and good for baseball. Miller, meanwhile, is a rich, detailed, exacting stylist who, despite agreeing with the iconoclast, provides a feel for the game that traditional baseball movies hardly reach. In other words, Miller understands men like Beane in a way that directors of sports films rarely do: both accept the business side of pro sports and find a way to love it anyway.

Not a grand point, but within a movie as easy to watch and with as much feeling as this, that’s not such a bad thing. It’s easy to imagine what Moneyball would have been like if Fincher had made it. Not only is Pitt, a Fincher regular (and great actor), the star, but his major theme — the thriving, ugly underbelly that makes an American institution work — is the focus. Sure, Fincher’s downer approach to this stuff would probably have given us a deeper cutting movie, but a director like Miller, with real talent and a more humanistic approach, is an essential counterpoint.

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