MONEYBALL directed by Bennett Miller (2011)

“By my calculations, we’ll win the match and you’ll win an Oscar”

As an Englishman, I imagine that watching Brad Pitt in a movie about baseball is similar to an American watching Colin Firth in a film about cricket.

Personally, I’m not a great cricket lover although I know the rules and I can understand how people get passionate about the game.

Of baseball I know next to nothing and, above all, I can’t quite understand why it generates such excitement in the U.S. This is a major handicap when it comes to enjoying a film like Moneyball.

Rene Rodriguez in his Miami Herald review assures us that “If you hate baseball, you will still love this movie” , a view presumably based on the fact that most of the story takes place away from the actual games. It didn’t work for me. I don’t hate baseball, I just don’t have strong views one way or another, and this also more or less sums up my feelings about Moneyball.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. He is a tobacco chewing (and spitting) man’s man with a plan. This entails adopting a risky ‘adapt or die’ strategy of rebuilding his team by buying players whose price tag is low but whose cumulative potential to make a match winning team is high.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s missing!”

This is based on the notion that computer data can give a more reliable winning formula than human instinct. Beane’s own experience as a player colours his judgement here as he  was tipped for stardom but failed to fulfil his potential – “many are called but few are chosen” he says about the X-factor that separates the winners from the losers.

Billy  is helped in his statistical gamble by the nerdy Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate in economics and  more of a whizz at spread sheets than competitive sports. The movie is based on a true story but Brand is the one character not based on a real person. The nearest equivalent to him  in real life is Paul DePodesta who refused to allow his name to be used in the film. His snub probably works to the movie’s advantage as the contrast between the confident and ambitious Beane and the introverted Brand is the best thing about the film.

This is a charismatic, but not a particularly glamorous role for Pitt who wisely realises that interesting parts require more than trading on good looks. His decision to produce the film was itself a gamble as not everyone was convinced that the best selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis had movie potential.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph , Pitt explained what he saw in the story that made him determined to get the project off the ground: “It’s about how we value things: how we value each other, how we value ourselves and how we decide who’s a winner based on those values. The film questions the very idea of how to define success. The players these guys hired thought of themselves as failures and suddenly they were given the opportunity to play, proved worthy and changed the game.”

The screenplay is by Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List, and Aaron Sorkin, who won for The Social Network. It is directed by Bennett Miller who made the excellent ‘Capote’. On paper this looks like a winning team but I found the movie lacking in any real momentum. At over two hours, it is also unnecessarily long. Being stretched out like this only means that we get to hear an irritatingly cutesy song by Beale’s 11-year daughter two times and allows space for wholly superfluous scene with his ex-wife.

The universal acclaim from American critics signifies that this movie touches a chord with baseball enthusiasts but  those, like me, who are not in love with the game will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Ah, but it’s a metaphor, you may argue – but for what?, I might ask.

I’m not convinced by some who claim  that Billy Beale’s radical plan for his team has been embraced as an entirely new way of running a business.  I think that you can draw parallels between big-studio movie economics and Major League Baseball but the financial free-fall of recent years doesn’t show that American companies have been striving to do more with less. On the contrary, it shows that American businesses are unwilling and unable to  think outside the box to challenge  the capitalist convention that money buys success.

Moneyball is a serious movie about baseball, not business, and my gut reaction (i.e. not based on any computer data) is that this particular field of dreams won’t extend far beyond the borders of the U.S. of A.

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