By Brian Lafferty
April 24, 2012 (San Diego) – As a die-hard San Diego Padres fan, I sympathize with Billy Beane, the subject of Moneyball. I can understand the frustration with the financial constraints that can befall a small-market team like the Oakland As. It’s unfair that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox happen to be situated among the nation’s top media markets and can afford to spend ample amounts of dollars to lure in free agents.
After the 2001 postseason, the A’s lose their three prize players to free agency because they can’t afford them. Beane hires steals from the Cleveland Indians a young, shy, and knowledgeable assistant named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). He’s drawn to Brand’s theory of Moneyball in which batting average, home runs, and runs batted in are overrated. Instead, according to Brand, the team should acquire players capable of frequently getting on base and hitting for extra bases. Beane, with Brand’s aid, builds a roster around this theory.
But not everyone subscribes to this theory. Beane quickly finds himself in a power struggle with A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who dismisses this radical idea and insists on managing the team his way even in the face of a dreadful season.
When I saw Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting credit, I saw why the movie reminded me of The Social Network and A Few Good Men. Like the former, it explores and fleshes out a small story and renders it a large-scale human interest yarn. Like the latter, it transcends its genre and finds a way beyond its limitations through keen dialogue, complex characters, and a penetrating examination of issues outside the main story.
With the increasing convergence of cinema and television, some movies are nothing more than big screen TV (like Conviction and The Whistleblower). The color palette and lighting is innocuous and basic. The colors aren’t special and the lighting does only what’s needed. But the unsophisticated cinematography does possess specific traits essential to Moneyball’s success.
Moneyball, to my relief, is not big screen television. Director Bennett Miller and cinematographer Wally Pfister rarely use close-ups, a television staple. Pfister frequently frames each scene with medium and wide shots. Two-person dialogue scenes use over-the-shoulder compositions, a style that made me feel like I was in the room. It preserves the film’s intended docudrama style.
The DVD transfer is solid, if unremarkable. The most glaring issues concern the TV footage of the actual games. Back in 2001 and 2002, standard definition broadcasts were commonplace despite the then-recent emergence of high definition. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that baseball games were routinely broadcast in high definition.
When seen on the standard definition 4x3 televisions the characters watch from, the quality is what you’d expect. When the footage is blown up to fill the widescreen TV, the footage is assy and ugly. When Philip Seymour Hoffman is digitally inserted into the actual footage, the results are awkward and unnatural.
Brad Pitt’s Oscar-nominated performance is low-key and no-nonsense. He means business, too. That doesn’t make him a drone; there are moments when Pitt lets loose. Like when he hurls a chair from his office into the hallway. Or when he angrily trashes the locker room to teach his players what losing should mean. Or when he uphends his office desk in frustration.
These moments are like spikes on a seismograph. A smooth talker, he sounds extemporaneous, but delivers with maximum confidence.
Moneyball’s most pleasant surprise is its narrative approach. Rather than making it a Bad News Bears story that concentrates on the team trying to win it all, it focuses on the business side, the guys not on the field. Moneyball isn’t about the A’s. It’s about Billy Beane. The script transforms what could have been a clichéd sports movie into a sharp docudrama.
A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. Director: Bennett Miller. Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, and Stan Chervin, based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis. Original Music: Mychael Danna. Cinematography: Wally Pfister. Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Wright. 133 minutes. Rated PG-13.