Baseball is a mere pretext to explore the tectonic shifts in business and the evolution of the American dream in Bennett Miller's follow-up to Capote. The lightly fictionalised true story of the Oakland Athletics' 2002 reinvention of baseball according to batting statistics rather than old-fashioned talent scouting, led by former second-tier ballplayer Billy Beane, is reframed by ace screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin as a quest for redemption and a struggle for the soul of the American pastime - with as little footage of the sport itself as possible. This is deliberate, not only because it diverts the film into the backroom deals and snappy dialogue where Mr. Sorkin's talent usually excels. It actually lasers in on the greater significance of the approach Mr. Beane and his right-hand man Paul di Podesta (here turned into Yale graduate Peter Brand) brought to bear on baseball: a surprise effect built entirely on numbers that, at the same time as it reduces humanity to a mere statistical algorithm, offers a second chance for the disenfranchised and underdog players.

     Although it's not exactly a traditional sports movie, Moneyball does work within the usual borders of the genre, with a hero that fights against all odds to prove his worth, and that of his ideas, to the world at large and eventually is vindicated. It's a traditionally uplifting underdog tale, only told through a perfectly struck balance between the cold logic of numbers and the human need to excel - and that is where Brad Pitt comes in, his exquisitely modulated performance as Beane signalling he has finally become the actor we always wished he would become. His film-star good looks work within the performance to bring out the vulnerability and desperation that underlines the personal story of a man wishing to make up for a life he sees as wasted and making sure nobody else has to go through the same thing as he did.

     Mr. Miller directs with a cool, smart hand, if more workmanlike than inspired, but that only underlines the wonderfully understated, classic sensibility at work that makes it an update on classic American tales; one can't help but wonder what Steven Soderbergh, who was set to direct before Columbia pulled the plug on his take on the material, would have done with it, but Mr. Miller's Moneyball stands on its own as a very good film.

Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright.
     Director, Bennett Miller; screenplay, Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, from a story by Stan Chervin and the book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball; cinematography, Wally Pfister (colour by DeLuxe); music, Mychael Danna; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor, Christopher Tellefsen; producers, Michael de Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Mr. Pitt (Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Michael de Luca Productions), USA, 2011, 133 minutes.


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