In many ways, making an original sports movie is one of screenwriting’s hardest tasks. After all, there are so many familiar tropes that there’s always the risk that the next one will be much the same as any other.
But without those familiar scenes: the triumph of the underdog over adversity; the spirit of determination; the locker-room speeches and the last-second score, how can you sustain an audience’s attention? This is sport after all.
Moneyball is that movie. It’s not a movie about sporting triumph on the field but the carefully strategised moments off it – the planning, the dealing and set up, the winding of the mechanism which allows the clock to tick.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the General Manager of The Oakland A’s, a baseball team which has consistently come close to, but never achieved, big league glory. Beane’s at his wit’s end because all his high-profile players are constantly poached by the bigger clubs with bigger budgets as soon as their contracts expire, leaving him with gaping holes in his roster.
Under pressure to deliver a winning team with a miniscule budget, Beane comes across young Economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who uses not the intuition of the traditional baseball scout but cold, hard statistics to pick hypothetical winners. Together they build a team composed of not high-profile hitters but a rag-tag bunch of misfits who look lumpy but excel at getting on base, thus increasing the team’s overall likelihood of winning.
Largely ignoring the sport in favour of statistics is in itself a bold move (when was the last time you stood up and applauded an Excel spreadsheet?) but the writers Steve Zaillian and the Aaron Sorkin have managed to keep it interesting with an intelligent and clever script.
This is drama on a grander scale. One player’s triumphs or successes are largely irrelevant and we’re told very little about individual players (just enough to retain a human element). Instead, there are several excellent scenes where Beane and Pete argue their case against the grizzled old-timers of baseball scouting, not trying to win their game but inventing a new one entirely.
Sorkin is a man used to crafting excellent dialogue (the spartan but penetrating rapid fire delivery of Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network is a prime example) and again here the highlights are the words not the deeds, the heated boardroom arguments; Beane’s bickering with an stubborn coach (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a terrific scene in which Beane negotiates a deal across three clubs with three phones – not so much bluffing with a bad hand but bluffing with no cards at all.
Pitt is perfect as Beane; bluff, uncompromising and totally focused on what he wants. He’s like a sports fed version of Tyler Durden without the propensity for anarchic violence. He has great chemistry with Hill, who deliberately underplays his role leading to some natural and snappy banter which is consistently funny.
Moneyball is a smart movie about the science of sport and despite its lack of actual baseball action, manages to be one of the most compelling and invigorating sports movies of recent times. Those old sports movie tropes are here but they’re in meetings and phone calls, spreadsheets and arguments. Who’d have thought it?