I'm not into baseball, I'm barely more interested in economics, and I only enjoy looking at statistics when they're about something fun. So a movie about the business of sports and the formulas of geeky statisticians should have kept me away. Why, then, did I like Moneyball? Because it's intelligent. Because it shines a light on an industry I know very little about. And because ultimately, even if I don't care much for sports, I'm still a sucker for a sports movie, where the underdog team (in this case, the 2002 Oakland Athletics) comes up from the bottom and somehow succeeds against all odds.
Moneyball's twist on the genre is that the athletes themselves are not the protagonists – in fact they're depicted as "human resources" who are bought, sold, and traded by the pro teams' general managers in order to win games. In short, Moneyball proves that fantasy baseball is actually a lot like real baseball.
You still see some heroics on the field here, but the big hero is A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who in 2001 decided to follow the advice of nerdy economics major (a composite character named Peter Brand, played straight by Jonah Hill) and revamped his struggling team – not with high-priced superstars, but with low-earning losers who had one simple thing in common: despite their various flaws (a bad elbow here; an aging player there) they had a good record of making it to base. And, as proposed by Brand's theory (later called sabermetrics), that was the only thing required to win games.
Miller and his celebrated screenwriters (Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin and Schindler's List writer Steven Zaillian) do a good job at explaining the almost impossibly complex formulas behind sabermetrics, as well as getting it out of the way in order to focus on the human drama behind Beane's risky new approach to managing his team.
It's not a perfect movie; with Hill and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the A's manager) fading into the background at times, it often feels like a hagiography of the supernaturally confident Beane, so much that Beane himself reportedly joked that it looked as though he had written, directed, and produced the film himself. But Miller, who has helmed just three features in 13 years (the first a documentary), excels at quiet drama, is unafraid of awkward silences, and has a very keen interest in showing smart men at work.
Moneyball may be the most understated sports movie I've ever seen, and even though the story builds up to a climactic 2002 game between the A's and the Kansas City Royals that must have been one of the most suspenseful matches in major league baseball history, Miller and his writers surprise us by taking us beyond the typical sports movie climax and into subtler territory. This is a thinking person's film, but it's still a good time.