WASHINGTON – There’s a scene in “Moneyball” where Jonah Hill tells Brad Pitt, “I wanna show you a video.” Pitt says, “I’m not in the mood for film,” but winds up loving what he sees. The same goes for “Moneyball,” a film that cash-strapped moviegoers will find well worth the price of admission.
It does for baseball what “Jerry Maguire” did for football, taking us behind the scenes of professional sports. It tells the true story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt), whose low-budget team has just been purged by baseball’s high rollers. Johnny Damon has gone to the Red Sox, Jason Giambi has gone to the Yankees, and Beane laments, “There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.”
With a clear dollar disadvantage, Beane needs a new strategy to compete. Enter Peter Brand (Hill), a young statistician who stresses the need to build a roster not on star power, but by a computer-generated analysis of “on base percentage.” Their goal is not only to build a winning team, but to undo years of traditional scouting and “change the game of baseball.”
The script comes from the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis. It was originally adapted by Stan Chervin, re-written by the Oscar-winning Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York,” “American Gangster”), re-written again by the Oscar- winning Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” “The Social Network”), and directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote”), who took over when Steven Soderbergh left the project.
The subject matter is so unique and the execution so superb that you can go ahead and add it to the Top 10 baseball movies of all time, joining the likes of “Field of Dreams” (1989), “Bull Durham” (1988), “Major League” (1989), “The Natural” (1984), “A League of Their Own” (1992), “The Sandlot” (1993) and “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942).
Like all of the above, the film thrives off a deep bench of talent. I can imagine the filmmakers sitting around a table like the “Moneyball” scouts, looking for actors with high “box office percentage.” So they drafted Pitt to hit clean-up and rounded out the line-up with Robin Wright (“Forrest Gump”), who plays Beane’s ex-wife; Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Magnolia”), who plays the gruff ball coach; and Jonah Hill (“Superbad”), who hits a “sac fly” by giving up his usual comic relief.
The gamble paid off, as Hill earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Pitt was also nominated, both as actor and co-producer, and the guy deserves a statue soon, having proved he’s so much more than that pretty face from “Thelma and Louise” (1991). Sadly, if he didn’t win for “Fight Club” (1999) or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), he most likely won’t win here, having to beat Jean Dujardin, George Clooney and Gary Oldman off with a Louisville Slugger.
The same will probably go for most of the film’s six Oscar nominations, especially since both Sorkin and Zaillian have won before. While it may leave Oscar night a “loser,” the sweet lyrics of Pitt’s on-screen daughter will keep things in perspective: “You’re such a loser dad. Just enjoy the show.”
The public gives it a 7.8 on IMDb. The critics give it a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Calling it from both sides of The Film Spectrum, I’m giving “Moneyball” 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.
Countdown to the Oscars: Join us for an in-depth look at all nine Best Picture nominees every Wednesday and Friday until the Academy Awards on February 26th. Check out fellow nominees, “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”