Making a good film about baseball is hard. You can count the successes on one hand, and the movie most people relate to baseball – Field of Dreams – doesn’t concern itself with the major leagues. With games that frequently last several hours and a stop-start setup, America’s national past-time is not an easily filmable sport, yet Moneyball has the game as its centrepiece.
Indeed Bennett Miller’s first film since 2005’s Capote isn’t content with just taking on a tough-to-capture sport: he’s combining that sport with economics. Name me five exciting films about economics and I’ll post you a cheque.
His movie, the adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name, focuses itself on Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics, who since 1998 have become one of the sport’s most cost-effective teams by signing players based on economically sound principles as opposed to lavish spending and reckless free agency policy. In layman’s terms? They sign players who most other teams wouldn’t touch, turn them into winners, then trade them for a tidy profit.
Under the guidance of general manager Billy Beane, their approach has not only challenged the perceived class system of baseball – where rich teams like the Yankees can regularly outbid small-market clubs like the A’s for quality players – but showed that thinking outside the box can pay dividends. If this sounds like a movie plot, it’s well-suited to being one, despite being based on real events (Beane helped install this policy, and the A’s have followed it for the last decade-and-a-half).
You’d also be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a dull combination of The Mighty Ducks and A Beautiful Mind, where a team of misfits is brought together by an erratic but brilliant mathematical mind. Yet Miller’s film promises to be much more than that, and having already beautifully documented the life of tragic genius Truman Capote, you wouldn’t bet against him making Moneyball into a winner.
Brad Pitt, coming off what’s perhaps a career-best performance in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, stars as Beane, bringing gravitas and charisma to a difficult role, assisted by Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand, a novice not just to a job in baseball but a job full stop. Philip Seymour Hoffman, so breathtaking in Miller’s last film, plays Art Howe, the A’s manager. It’s an impressive cast – one also including Robin Wright, Chris Pratt and Kathryn Morris – which should bring a solid emotional foundation to proceedings, and ensure that the film doesn’t slide into the hackneyed clichés which have plagued even the best sports flicks.
However, early indications are that Moneyball is unlikely to succumb to these traps, firstly because the A’s have not won a World Series crown since 1989 – there’s unlikely to be a trophy-clutching, dad-hugging denouement. Secondly, the trailer – whose finale is reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, in my view the greatest sports film ever made – seems to be grounded in the frank realities of sports management rather than a faux-glamorous look at a business conducted as much in the boardroom as on the diamond.
Miller’s direction will be the key to making Moneyball a success: if he can follow Beane’s lead and put economy over glamour, it’s a fascinating tale which might, if not get a grandslam, at least bat in a couple of runs.
Moneyball will be released in the autumn.