The extent to which a film about sporting statistics can be enthralling is best demonstrated during a series of high stake negotiations over the phone in Moneyball. The two main characters, Oakland Athletics baseball team general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are in their small office putting their controversial player trading strategy to work. As the financial underdogs of Major League Baseball in 2002, Beane and Brand have developed a radical new approach to compiling a team to compete with clubs who have bigger budgets and therefore stronger player buying power. Through careful player statistics scrutiny Beane and Brand went after overlooked players who would theoretically become a team capable of winning. For a film about the behind-the-scenes politics of baseball, it is therefore appropriate that a behind-the-scenes sequence is the most exciting moment. Beane and Brand juggle phone calls, negotiate on the run and communicate split decisions to each other while maintaining the illusion of calm conversation on the phone. It’s tense and exhilarating.
With Beane as the extrovert and Brand as the introvert, the pair are a likeable, underdogs odd couple taking on an unfair system. Like the players they controversially select, they are also both under appreciated and underachievers. While far more traditionally ‘heroic’ than the protagonists from The Social Network (written by Moneyball co-writer Aaron Sorkin), Beane and Brand change the rules of the game to suit themselves rather than follow the conventional approach. This attracts substantial criticism and condemnation, with critics of their system applying a disproportionate focus on their losses rather than triumphs.
The criticism that Beane and Brand receive reveals a broader trend in social discourse to discredit methodical and scientific approaches over intuition and common sense, or at least the myth of intuition and common-sense. Within the film the accusations of Beane being out of touch become increasingly defensive to expose just how threatened wealthy and powerful interests are when their dominance is challenged. And since one of the key ways the powerless can challenge the powerful is through methodical strategy and rational thought to expose the flaws in the system, that type of analytical thinking is what is attacked. By making the heroes the guys who use a scientific approach to challenge the status quo, Moneyball pleasingly goes against the Hollywood tendency of deriding intelligence.
Moneyball is a restrained drama with moments of unconventional excitement. As the film is predominantly from the perspective of Beane, very little actual baseball is shown since Beane was apparently superstitious about attending games. The games are mostly conveyed to the audience in the way they are conveyed to Beane: via brief sound bites on the radio, news reports and text messages from Brand. This keeps the attention on Beane and the execution of his and Brand’s strategy, rather than the typical sport film approach of focusing on the actual game. The film mostly avoids cliché with Beane and Brand’s relationship never going into bromance territory. Some sentiment does seep in during the scenes with Beane’s daughter, but there’s nothing overtly distracting.
A degree of grounding to the film is created through the inclusion of ‘dead time’. Such moments are usually edited out to keep the film zipping along, but Moneyball is full of small and short moments between main bits of dialogue and action to remind the audience of the almost banal and highly unglamorous nature of the machinations off the pitch. Impressively Moneyball manages to convey both a sense of everydayness to what it depicts while also demonstrating the excitement of Beane and Brand’s approach, which would go on to completely change the nature of professional baseball.