In the past year, Aaron Sorkin has written the screenplays for Moneyball and The Social Network, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Taken on the surface, no two films could be more dissimilar; one is about baseball, the other about the internet. So what would draw Sorkin to such disparate subjects, if not for the simple challenge of doing something different? Dig a little deeper, however, and you may just find that these two films are meant to serve as bookends. Both deal with men who speak a language unfamiliar to the common man. Their central characters live in sealed worlds we couldn’t possibly hope to penetrate. Neither man is motivated by money, but is in search of something greater than it. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg pursues a dream of creating the perfect method for human beings to connect with one another, all the while sacrificing his own personal relationships. And in Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays a man so desperate to achieve a different kind of dream, that he steamrolls everything and everyone in his way to do it. I can only imagine the sort of pleasure Sorkin must have experienced when he was approached with the idea.
I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about baseball, which I found wasn’t much of a handicap. Moneyball isn’t so much about the sport anyway, as it is about what it means to different people. It certainly means something to Billy Beane, who gave up a scholarship to Stanford when he was eighteen for a position with the New York Mets, a move that met with disaster. Now 44, he’s the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, a position he takes seriously, but doubts since his team lost the World Series playoffs by a hair. Beane goes through a series of excruciating business meetings with other team owners, as he tries to trade players. But the A’s are short on cash: their players’ salaries total a whopping $39 million, while the team they lost the Series to is valued at more than five times that. Beane doesn’t have the money to trade for the best players in the league.
Through a happy accident, Beane discovers Peter Brand, a quiet nerd with a Yale Economics degree who has a knack for picking players. How does he do it, Beane demands. It’s simple: following the teachings of a famous statistician, Brand uses Sabermetrics — statistics and computer models — to find the most undervalued players in the league. Why have one mediocre high-priced player when you can have three players with hidden talents that no one wants for half the price? One pitcher is shunned by the league because he “throws funny.” Another is considered over the hill at 40, even though he has talent. The A’s have just lost a key player to free agency, but why not hire his lesser-known younger brother? Beane and Brand’s theory leads them to the catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), now out of a job due to permanent nerve damage in his elbow; he may not be able to catch anymore, but there’s no reason he can’t be taught to play first base.
None of this goes over well with the team’s recruiters. They think the goal is to find the best players in the league, even if it means shelling out wads of cash for expensive contracts. Pitt is terrific here, tired and exasperated, as he tries to explain one more time that no, the goal is to pull the team out of a pile of crap. But no one is more displeased than the team manager, Art Howe, played with equal exasperation by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Who are these guys Beane wants to hire? And how the hell is he supposed to teach a catcher how to play first base? But Beane is relentless. They’ll build the team using Brand’s model, and mutiny will not be tolerated.
But as I said, Moneyball is about the meaning of baseball. Beane’s true motives for his obsession run deep, providing richly-textured drama uncommon for a “sports movie.” For some, like Art, baseball is about a feeling: the excitement of the fans, the smell of hotdogs and popcorn, the thrill of watching a favorite player hit a grand slam. For Beane, it’s about making amends. A pair of recruiters took a chance on him, and he failed them — and himself. He did it for the money. Yes, he was an extraordinarily talented high school player, but for reasons the movie makes unclear, he choked. Beane sees a World Series win as a chance at his own redemption, and in the process of chasing it, loses his humanity. Even as the A’s go for a record 20-game winning streak, Beane is dissatisfied: he needs to win the ultimate game, otherwise the effort is meaningless. There’s a series of exhilarating scenes as Beane conducts rapid-fire negotiations with a litany of team owners, trading his own players like so many baseball cards, forgetting entirely that he’s dealing with human beings, not commodities, while Brand sits across from him approving or nixing potential picks. Beane refuses to travel with his team for fear of developing a bond with the players; baseball is a business, after all, and he can’t take the chance that a personal relationship will cloud his trading judgements. Instead, he sends Brand, who’s grappling with his own lack of interpersonal skills. Like The Social Network‘s Mark Zuckerberg, Beane and Brand immerse themselves in a world of coded language, statistics and trades, driven endlessly by individual goals, oblivious to the personal repercussions of chasing greatness. Brand seems tentatively unsure of Beane’s ruthless drive, but soon relents when he sees that his model has potential and he might just become famous. And Beane just barely maintains a civil relationship with his ex-wife, her new-age boyfriend, and his young daughter, who wants nothing more than for her father to relax. “Sports movie” is too simplistic: Moneyball is a great movie about a thoroughly damaged man.
Much of the credit for the movie’s success goes to the screenplay, which contains some of the best writing of the year. Sorkin and co-writer Steven Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) have an uncanny ear for the way people speak. Their words have the ring of real life; the humor is sharp and observant. Pitt is having a banner year, after giving what I consider his best performance in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. His Billy Beane is a constant pressure-cooker of demands and expectations — of himself and his players — and Pitt delivers with a cold detachment and laser-like focus. When he speaks, you can almost see that World Series home run reflected in his eyes. Jonah Hill, hot off his terrific performance as an Oedipal son in 2010’s Cyrus, is very good here, playing a young man caught up in an amazing opportunity. He wants so much to be the voice of reason, his logical brain almost demanding it, but the potential for achievement is too great, dragging him helplessly into Beane’s scheme. And Chris Pratt, so astonishingly perfect as the daft but lovable Andy Dwyer in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, does a lot with a small role, as an injured player desperate to just keep playing a game he loves; based on his performance here, and in Parks and Recreation, I’m predicting great things.