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Thursday 27 April 2017

Review: Moneyball

Rating: * * *
(PG,general release)

Paul Whitington

Though it's set behind the scenes of a professional baseball team, for most of its two-and-a-bit hours Moneyball doesn't really feel like a sports movie at all. It's less a film about athletes and contests than an individual's faith in himself and his desire to succeed, and as such is more accessible to non-Americans and non-baseball nuts than you might think.

Based on a book by Michael Lewis and the true adventures of the Oakland A's, Bennett Miller's film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, a man who's driven to the very edge of himself by his obsession with success.

A talented athlete who never made it big as a player, Beane is the general manager of the struggling Oakland A's major league baseball team in the early 2000s. Thanks to a decent coach and clever management, the A's have made it to the post-season divisional playoffs that will decide who contests the World Series.

But when they lose their 2001 playoff against the star-studded New York Yankees, Beane is overcome with frustration. He has pushed his team as far as they can go with the resources available to him, and has now hit a financial wall. While the Yankees' wages bill for 2001 was $114m, Beane and the A's had to make do with less than $40m.

Things aren't getting any better either, and after the defeat to the Yankees most of Beane's remaining star players leave for other teams. While his aged scouts convene to try to pick some cheap but promising players from the annual draft, Billy realises that a brand new approach is called for if Oakland are to have any chance of winning anything.

Baseball is a game steeped in romanticism, tradition and sentiment, and the old scouts at the Oakland A's talk about a player's looks and how he holds himself as much as they do his actual talent. One of them even suggests that if a player has an ugly girlfriend it means he lacks confidence.

Beane instinctively thinks that all of this is nonsense, and when he meets a geeky young computer whiz called Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), he finds a system to back up his hunch.

Brand is working as a backroom player scout for the Cleveland Indians, but Beane quickly persuades him to move to California to help build a new Oakland team based on Brand's radical sabermetric method. This new scientific approach uses empirical statistical evidence rather than hunches and sentiment to select players with potential, and Brand and Beane begin building a squad of cheap players who've been overlooked by other teams for superficial reasons.

Oakland's scouts are not best pleased, and neither is their grizzled coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who opposes Beane's system at every turn. At first Howe's fears seem justified when Beane's new-look team bombs. But gradually they begin to work their way into the season, and go on a run of wins that silences their many critics.

A summary of Moneyball's plot makes it sound rather dry, but somehow director Bennett Miller and writers Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian manage to bring this potentially turgid story to life. It's about baseball but could be the story of any man in any sphere who dares to challenge the time-honoured ways of doing things.

Pitt's Beane is a nervy, moody, driven character who's haunted by his failure to make it as a major league player. His obsessive need to win drives the A's to unexpected heights but fails to soothe his own inner demons.

Pitt's charismatic performance holds the film together, and Sorkin's involvement ensures moments of quick-fire interchange and sparkling wit. What prevents Moneyball from ever really taking off as a drama, though, is every other character's lack of depth. Billy develops and changes through an arc, but other characters such as his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and Seymour Hoffman's crusty coach appear and disappear without ever really impinging on Beane's solipsistic quest. Moneyball's good: it might have been a whole lot better.

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