Take Me Out to the Numbers Game: “Moneyball”

Let’s hear it for smart Hollywood movies. For “Moneyball,” a new film about statistics in baseball staring Brad Pitt, is a nimble one.

The movie is based on the 2003 best-seller by Michael Lewis, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Pitt plays Billy Beane as the innovative general manager of the Oakland Athletics during the 2001-02 season.

Beane was a young baseball protégé drafted out of high school by the New York Mets. Then, for no clear reason, particularly to Beane, his abilities calcified. He was no longer the sure-shoot wunderkind. He bounced from team to team to team and ended up playing for the A’s, until the day he walked off the field and into the front office and declared he’d make a better scout than a ballplayer. Eight years later he’s G.M. of the small-market, losing team.

With the A’s minuscule purse-strings, Beane goes onto use sabermetrics (baseball statistics) to build a solid team of undervalued players that can compete with the bloated Goliaths of the league – the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, primarily. His quirky number crunching propels the A’s into multiple playoffs over the next several seasons. He forever changes conventional wisdom in baseball.

If baseball is the every-man’s sport, “Moneyball” is the thinking-man’s movie. The dialogue is chiseled and clever. The triumphant cast – of Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman – is terrific. There’s even early Oscar buzz for Pitt.

The director, Bennett Mill, directed Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in “Captoe.” His “Moneyball” captivates from the get-to, a smoothly seamed stitch of narrative, which, refreshingly, doesn’t rely on a nostalgic soundtrack for transition. Under a lesser hand, “Moneyball” could have wound up overtly honeyed and hackneyed.

The script is co-written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, two of Hollywood’s current It-writers. Sorkin, of course, is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of last year’s “The Social Network.” He cut his lexicologically dexterous teeth on “A Few Good Men,” “Malice” and TV’s West Wing.

Zaillian won a best adapted screenplay Oscar for “Schindler’s List” and co-wrote screenplays for “American Gangster” and “Gangs of New York.” He also wrote the screenplay of the much-anticipated American take on one of the wildly popular books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which drops December 21, and is directed by “The Social Network’s” Oscar-nominated David Fincher.

Sorkin and Zaillian are high-octane gifted TV-movie writers in the vein of Paddy Chayefsky (“Network”), Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men” and TV’s Boston Legal) and Alan Ball (“American Beauty” and TV’s Six Feet Under and True Blood). They are uber-smart, egotistical and (rumored to be) difficult-to-work-with Hollywood big-shoots. In the age of vapid, recylced Hollywood movies like “I Don’t Know How She Does It” and “Shark Night 3D,” movie-going America should thank them for that.

In Sorkin’s own words, “‘Moneyball’ is no more a movie about baseball than ‘The Social Network’ is about Facebook.'” And therein lie its smartness – and its beauty.

I know nothing more about baseball statistics than I do about computer algorithms. I do know, however,  that unlocking the mysteries of either – like unearthing the reasons for the final battle on the moon Endor, with its natural inhabitants, the Ewoks – can begat creation and destruction, wisdom and foolishness, beatitude and sorrow, adulation and reprehension – all of which make for compelling and timeless storytelling, and great movies.

In his new memoir, “Life Itself,” Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert pines for the days when Hollywood movies were more than mediocre. He says, “Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic and musical. Today it is flat.”

Not “Moneyball.” And you can thank Sorkin and Zaillian for it.


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