[14 September 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Expect Brad Pitt to get some award season attention for his playful portrayal of real life Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, a man trying to find a way to win a game with a stacked deck. Back in 2001, with among the smallest budgets in major league baseball, and following the advice of a rookie Assistant-GM (here played by a perfectly deadpan Jonah Hill), Beane threw out the rulebook, fired his head scout, and fielded a team based upon a theory about on-base percentage. And despite the collective disbelief and disdain of the sporting world, it worked.
Though the stakes in this film are remarkably low—while it may be true that Beane stuck his neck out to do this, it is hard to escape the sense that all of these famous and successful wealthy people didn’t have that much to lose if this didn’t work out—this is a very entertaining movie in almost every way. Not a traditional sports film given that there is almost no baseball to speak of (a trick easily pulled off since Beane famously refused to watch his team’s games) Moneyball plays more like a classic “(wo)man against the system” thriller. Though it flags a bit in the third act (since it’s understandably tough to generate suspense and drama during an historic 20-game winning streak) the set up is so tasty that few could complain.
But you see, based on a book by Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Liars Poker), and co-scripted by Aaron Sorkin, master of the “it-seems-like-it’s-about-this-but-it’s-really-about-THAT” approach to screenwriting, this tellingly-titled flick never intended to be about baseball. Basically, it purports to tell us, America’s pastime had been corrupted by a combination of greed, entrenched and lopsided wealth, and a steadfast refusal to evolve. Indeed, this is likely the only film about Wall Street that never mentions Wall Street. Beane’s approach may have been innovative and successful, but it flew in the face of conventional wisdom, threatened entrenched elites and wealthy captains of the industry, and demanded a radical rethinking of a system that worked perfectly well for the rich but poorly for everyone else. Sound familiar?