For a sports movie, there really isn’t all that much playing of sports to be found. Not only in title, but in content, “money” definitely comes before “ball.” Though this may make it seem like it would be of little to no interest to sports fans, in fact quite the opposite is true.
A sports fan is rewarded with a film like this, as it truly relishes in a detailed understanding of the broader forces at play,leaving the final inning thrills for laymen to enjoy in Hoosiers and the like.
In this case, such a detailed understanding comes in the form of “sabermetrics,” a statistical system championed by Beane in his general management of the Oakland A’s 2002-3 season, and used to determine what types of players actually translate into wins for a team, as opposed to simply raw star power.
The film’s commitment to this statistical perspective is so deep, lucid, and well-executed that it actually manages to derive suspense and tension from it’s abundant titles and graphs - no small achievement on the part of director Bennett Miller (Capote).
Ultimately, though, there can be no mistake that this is first and foremost the Billy Beane story. We’re presented with a tenacious character, but also a frustrated, anxious, and standoffish one who, despite his obvious charms, can’t seem to charm anyone for the life of him. His interactions dominated by confrontations, rejection, and grasps at control.
His greatest conflict comes with team manager Art Howe, who, upset with Beane’s controversial recruiting and trading decisions, refuses to play the athletes the way Beane had intended. Howe is played by the pitch-perfect Phillip Seymour-Hoffman in a moment of casting so harmonious, it seems bizarre that he’s not donned such a role before.
Seemingly, Beane’s only ally (besides his daughter) comes in the form of his recently hired assistant general manager Peter Brand, who inspires Beane’s sabermetric paradigm shift. Jonah Hill is questionably cast as Brand in what is poised to be an entertaining odd couple, but Hill's seemingly limited acting chops allow Pitt’s seasoned and nuanced performance to simply drown him out.
The film does, as is to be expected, struggle with the challenge faced by nearly all book adaptations: how to fit such an immense amount of material into a two-hour running time. As such, certain components of the story - Beane’s relationship to his ex-wife and daughter, for example, feel somewhat glanced over.
The final result, however, is the sort of high-quality blockbuster we’ve come to expect from the likes of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York), who each took a pass at the screenplay.
So get out to the theatre if you want to be in the know come Oscar night 2012 - after all, you’ve got a week off from the Oscar-bait hit parade (re: Drive, Contagion) before Clooney delivers The Ides of March Oct. 7.