In a montage which showed the revolution at Oakland Athletics in their 2002 season, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is shown guiding David Justice (Stephen Bishop) in the nets, repeating “It’s a process” multiple times. For some reason the music slows around that instant and with the monotonous look on Justice’s face, probably because of being in the nets, the moment is more about the teacher’s relation to the teaching than to the teacher or the teaching themselves. Moneyball is the story of Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his effort to introduce a new system of scouting and interpreting performances in Baseball through a numbers point of view. Yes, that’s the plot. That’s it.
My argument as to why Moneyball is a great biography has five depressing words. It is made of failure. Instead of constructing the life of Billy Beane as a story of a wonderkid baseball player failing to make it on the grand stage and then upsetting the odds as a General Manager, it worked in a more rational and intimate way. We have had enough of what we could have done stories. We never got our what we should do now story. Moneyball and Miller knew their audience. Adults, rational people of the world trying to make a mark. They needed a Billy Beane to looked at by and compared with his irrationality. To look back at being called a “five skilled player” by the scouts and then years later being on the other side of the table, Beane mirrored our personalities against society and convention in general.
It is almost the opposite of Scorcese’s protagonists. Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Henry Hill (Goodfellas) and Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street) – all these characters and their corresponding films had a common tone of self-destruction. A tone which halfway through the character’s stay at the top reminded him that his actions or those of the people around him aren’t as righteous as they seemed and what followed next made these movies classics. Moneyball, on the same hand, followed the opposite symphony. Beane was smarter than these men and much more self-aware, such that it was highly unlikely that he starts questioning his purpose. His problem was that of a lack of a solution – similar to us, hence the relatability.
If there is ever a five-mark question on as to proving the writing prowess of Aaron Sorkin, this should be the last point. He is an outright genius, for he never compromises the bigger picture for the shorter pictures. In one of the scouts’ discussion scenes, a heated discussion is smartly intervened for seconds as an older scout struggles to perform basic subtraction. Billy helps. It’s so realistic, it’s almost outrageous.
One important aspect which worked in the favour of Bennet Miller was the character of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) – based on Paul DePodesta. Short height, teddy bear-esque body with the brain of a Yale graduate. It took me multiple viewings to realize this but Jonah Hill’s portrayal got so implicitly natural as it interweaved with the flow of the movie, that the actor became almost absent. It was as if we are Peter Brand – the person who Beane talks the most to, gets not much response in return and notices the happenings in and around Oakland Athletics from the closest view. One of the scenes which established Brand’s essence and maturity was when he had just moved into his new club. It goes:
Peter: Hey, Billy, I wanted you to see these player evaluations that you asked me to do.
Billy: I asked you to do three.
Billy: To evaluate three players.
Billy: How many did you do?
Peter: Actually, 51. I don’t know why I lied just then.
This is life. This isn’t fiction. And to eliminate that difference with grace, wit and ingenuity, while picking their timing right is what writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin did – something delicately carried forward by Wally Pfister behind the lens. Especially in that decision to leave the camera hanging in the last scene.
Somewhere, and evidently everywhere, behind the shadows of Moneyball being categorized as a baseball movie are the subtle conscience of people that related with Billy Beane’s success or the relative lack of it – which redefines the movie as a purely biographical venture. Brad Pitt’s efforts to capture the essence of man most of us hadn’t seen or met onto the screen were invisible, just because of how pure they felt. It was relatable to see the man unscramble his messed-up brain that lets him sit scared in the first scene, as he sat freely in the last – with little change in posture. His body was indeed a language – stuffing his mouth with popcorn as he made one important call after another, sitting with his legs spread, talking with alternating serious and relatively casual tones and having a constant look to prove a point to his past and futures self.
Moneyball trusts its characters to know their sport and keeping that constant early on, it sets the pace right for the rest of the variables. The film is a reminder that banking on the vulnerabilities of human conscience no matter the genre or the magnitude of the situation is always the riskier of bets, but somehow still with the odds. Moneyball plays with intent, dilemmas, layering and linearity. What it does not play with, just like Beane in real life, is a baseball.
- Mayank Malik