Moneyball is arguably this year's The Social Network -- and not just because Aaron Sorkin has a writing credit on both. The protagonist's outrage against major league baseball's systemic inequities closely mirrors the simmering acrimony between America's have's and have-not's; both problems have an equally simple and an equally improbable solution.
And like The Social Network, the zeitgeist is palpable in spite of the story's stark insularity -- virtually nothing and no one exist outside of the ballpark in Moneyball, but you still feel you have a stake in the outcome.
Brad Pitt brings his A-game to the role of Billy Beane, the general manager of the generally losing Oakland Athletics. It's 2001, and Beane is still smarting from a decades-old decision to give up a scholarship to Stanford in order to become a pro ballplayer. Turns out, he was not the star the scouts had in their eyes when they wrote the check.
At one point late in the film, Beane declares that ill-fated choice to have been the last decision based on money he would ever make. But the whole story is about him making decisions based on money -- because he has no other choice. (And when he does have a choice, he makes, presumably, the wrong one). Beane's motivations are hardly heroic -- he only wants to change the system because it isn't working for him.
The catalyst for this change arrives in the form of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), the 25-year old wide-eyed econ wiz who kills a trade between Oakland and Cleveland with a whisper. This gets Beane's attention, and when Brand admits he wouldn't have drafted the young Beane in the first round (or the eighth), the GM hires him away from his frenemy.
Brand's system for evaluating players is wholly empirical: It's not about a player's cache or even his talent -- it's about getting wins, and wins are about scoring runs, and runs are about getting on base. In this system, a player (like Kevin Youkilis) who excels at getting walked is equally as valuable as a player who excels at getting hits. And a player whose value is obscured by emotional bias -- like the pitcher no one wants because he throws funny -- is priceless.
Much like the film itself, this is a formula that works rather well, except when it doesn't. Bennett Miller's (Capote) direction is smooth and controlled, and he mostly (and wisely) stays out of the frame. Moneyball is almost perfectly cast, with just the right amount of familiar faces and those that wouldn't stand out in a stadium crowd. Notorious scene-stealer Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as beleaguered manager Art Howe) shows admirable restraint -- or is it age? -- and his overall performance is the better for it.
Anyone questioning the chemistry between Pitt and Hill will second-guess themselves during a raucous, kinetic trading scene that somehow manages to be hugely effective even though the audience (or even the characters) can barely understand what's going on. Here and elsewhere, Hill's impeccable comic timing further elevates a thoroughly well-executed sequence.
The stylistic mood-cues detract -- if only momentarily -- from an overall success. Dark clouds rolling in over the field when a winning streak is threatened; a lingering shot on a tear that just won't fall; and a little too much stereotypical locker room rage can mostly be forgiven.
Because Moneyball is a true story, there are few surprises. Still, there's no clear conclusion to draw. Is it a tragedy or a triumph that Beane passed on a vindicating multimillion contract with the Boston Red Sox? Only he can answer that. But there will be a few more people this year pulling for the A's to win their last game.