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"Moneyball" feels unlike any of the genres that could claim it. A baseball film foremost, it doesn't look or sound or unfold like a typical baseball film, perhaps because it is, more substantially, a business film. Based on the Michael Lewis 2003 nonfiction bestseller subtitled "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," the zeitgeist of the film is perfect for recession-era 2011. At its heart is the question of whether an organization with scarce resources — a team that cannot afford to retain its own best players on the open market — can compete by outwitting its rivals? The answer of "Moneyball" is that winning requires an overhaul in imagination, and the courage to assign worth to players who are seen as unworthy by traditional thinking. In that, "Moneyball" is really about values, and how values are overturned, so it is, at bottom, a film about apostasy. Baseball is the religion, winning is the path to salvation and the general manager in charge of these ragtag Oakland A's, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is in constant danger of being burned at the stake.
Beane and the A's really did apply the principles he dubbed "moneyball" across a number of years, to stock and re-stock rosters in small-market Oakland. Director Bennett Miller ("Capote") elects to compress this revolution into the gap between two of Oakland's improbable runs: the 2001 season that ended with a close playoff loss to the New York Yankees (payroll: triple Oakland's) and the 2002 season, in which the A's had to replace star sluggers Jason Giambi (off to New York) and Johnny Damon (poached by Boston), and pitcher Jason Isringhausen (hello, Cardinals) with players earning far less.
Responsible for this overhaul are the A's scouts, pictured here as the crustiest of low priesthoods, a roundtable of dinosaurs whose analysis of players' abilities is so airy that after reciting rote box-score stats they invariably describe how good-looking their favorite prospects are. It's in these sessions that screenwriters Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network," "A Few Good Men") and Steven Zaillian ("Gangs of New York," "Schindler's List") earn their keep, skirting the line nicely between a script that could have skewed too inside-baseball. As it stands, "Moneyball" is accessible throughout, and quite funny. Pitt and Jonah Hill, who plays a young baseball-minded economist named Peter Brand hired to crunch numbers, are dedicated to the art of deadpanning in a joke-free script. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the curmudgeonly manager Art Howe, who balks at actually fielding the castoff players Beane and Brand hand him, is another gem in the cast.
Now, the events in "Moneyball" did happen, mostly, even if some of them are overdramatized. (Adding to the verisimilitude are real sportscasts and radio clips, integrated brilliantly into the narrative.) The A's did start the 2002 season in a funk and come back to ... well, if you have even a vague awareness of baseball, you'll recall that the A's haven't won a World Series lately (as in the past 20 years), so you'll have to accept that the last game they play, they lose. And if you look at what winning teams (e.g., the Red Sox) have done since '02, you'll notice a distinct affinity for Beane's small-budget tactics backed up by payrolls that dwarf his. That's baseball; that's business. Even when the little guy wins, the natural order of things reasserts itself. It's rare that a sports movie acknowledges this fact with any seriousness, but then, it's rare that a sports movie is this fine. Pencil "Moneyball" in as a Best Picture nominee. It may not win, but it'll be a great story anyhow.