Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball, was a sports thriller disguised as a nonfiction volume about statistics wonks. And Bennett Miller's film of Thomas' book manages to be wonky and fun at the same time.
Indeed, it's one of the most entertaining sports movies in ages, mostly because it's not about winning the big game. Instead of focusing on an athlete trying to fulfill a dream or earn redemption, it's about a philosophy, a thought process, a way of living. It also happens to be both exciting and quite funny at the same time.
That's thanks to a beautifully adapted script, which is credited to a pair of Oscar winners: Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. While they obviously didn't collaborate, they apparently both made contributions that were cohesive and compatible enough to blend into this finished product.
But you also have to give a big share of that credit to director Bennett Miller, who has made another dramatic film based on real-life events (as he did with Capote) and given it a shape, a tone and a set of performances that render it recognizably human and compellingly intelligent at the same time.
At the center of the story is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a one-time baseball wunderkind whose promise as a prospect was never fulfilled as a player. As the film begins, it's 2002 and Beane is the general manager of the perennially basement-dwelling Oakland Athletics. Beane has somehow managed to find budding superstars to take the team to the play-offs, though not the World Series.
But the stars - Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen - have bailed out for bigger money elsewhere. And Beane doesn't have the funds to compete to keep them. As the team's owner tells him, Oakland is a small-market team with a small-market payroll, unable to compete with the rich guys in Boston and New York. Find another way to win, he is told.
On a visit to Cleveland to talk trade possibilities with their executives, Beane notices a nebbishy young junior executive whispering to his boss about each player Beane expresses an interest in - at which point Beane's inquiry is turned down. So he tracks the youngster to his cubicle in the Indians' office and tries to pick his brain.
The junior exec is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is fresh out of Harvard with a degree in economics and a head full of formulas for valuing players. While the Indians pay his salary, they don't listen to many of his suggestions - so Beane hires him.
What Brand (based on real-life baseball exec Paul DePodesta) brings to Oakland is a new way of looking at players' skills, based on statistics teased out of the endless morass of baseball's fascination with numbers by the statistician Bill James.
This review continues on my website.