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Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures-Sony

Game theory

Movies | With excellent acting and a powerful script, Moneyball is about more than baseball

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

When A-list actors Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, and director Bennet Miller of Capote team up to make a movie about America's game, it won't be just another story about life on the baseball field. It will mean something.

Moneyball, based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, pits tradition against science and instinct against cold hard facts, chronicling the 2002 Oakland Athletics season that changed the way Major League Baseball is played.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the A's. Representing a medium market team, he lacks the money and prestige to compete for good players against teams like the Yankees or Red Sox. Whenever the A's groom a young player into excellence, a higher-paying team scoops him up and the team is left short-handed again. Weak players mean a weak season and Billy Beane is tired of losing games.

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All that changes when Beane hires Peter Brand (a character representing the real life Paul DePodesta). Brand (Jonah Hill), a Harvard graduate with a degree in economics, trusts his spreadsheet analyses and baseball formulas more than scouts' intuition. He theorizes that if the A's hire players based on the math rather than on star power or traditional stats, they will start winning games.

The rest is history. The A's went on to a jaw-dropping winning streak, taking 20 straight games and nearly reaching the Chicago Cubs' all-time record of 21 games. Baseball paid attention. General managers scrambled to incorporate Beane's methods in the following years and the face of the game irrevocably changed.

Pitt plays Beane perfectly, a mix of desperate ambition and failed dreams with a bit of confused father thrown in. A first-round pick whose on-field career fizzled, he lost faith in the pronouncements of the scouts. If they couldn't predict his failure, why should he trust their wisdom?

Beane parents a tween daughter with his ex-wife. The sweet fatherhood storyline happens apart from his career storyline, but his parenting responsibilities affect some of his most important career decisions.

Jonah Hill proves he can play more than a comedic chubby slacker, pulling off his role with excellence. In fact, all the acting is excellent, down to a realistically awkward conversation between father, ex-wife, and new stepfather.

Because of Sorkin's powerful script, the film becomes more than just a baseball story. Tobacco-spitting scouts argue, and obstinate manager Art Howe (Hoffman) insists he knows his job better than Beane does. They all have skills that lie deep within but they can't articulate them.

"When you know, you know," is the explanation, but Harvard math makes no room for emotive choices. While Beane refuses to countenance the more mystical elements of scouting, he is still a man so captured by little superstitions that he won't watch an A's game at the stadium or listen on the radio for fear he will jinx the outcome. It's romance versus science, learned knowledge versus facts. While Harvard math has the upper hand, the victory is anything but decisive.

Moneyball is all-American for more than baseball. It's the classic tale of a man in thrall of a Great Idea. Like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg (whom Sorkin profiled in The Social Network), Beane's career becomes more than making money and doing well. He wants to change the world. Sorkin, to his credit, isn't afraid to portray ambition and projects both the greatness and dangers of men and women chasing a Great Idea.

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, the film has no sexual content or violence and is a worthwhile movie to share with a baseball-crazy teen. Even for those not afflicted with baseball fever, Moneyball is engaging.

Listen to a report on Moneyball and baseball on The World and Everything in It.

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