'Moneyball': Pitt, Hill right on the money

Film Rites
2 hours, 13 minutes


"Brad Pitt is a better actor than Robert Redford."

I made this statement upon leaving this week's baseball drama "Moneyball," a movie I was certainly impressed with. This assertion honestly doesn't feel all that controversial to me, though I'll admit that I only said it to get the goat of my moviegoing companions.

The only reason it came up at all is that the conversation had turned to another classic baseball movie, "The Natural," one of Redford's best. I have no problem with Robert Redford. I think he's great, and, for that matter, "The Natural" is a better film than "Moneyball."

The difference is that Redford spent a career perfecting straightforward, regular guy roles; roles much like that of Billy Beane, the character Pitt embodied this weekend. Pitt, on the other hand, can play anyone, any character, from a crazed Irish gypsy boxer to a guy who ages in reverse, and make you believe it. People discount him because he's hectored non-stop by the paparazzi, and his relationship with Angelina Jolie is like a circus on "Free Admission Under 12" day, but make no mistake: Brad Pitt is one of the best actors of the last 60 years, which automatically makes him one of the best of all time.

Billy Beane is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and he's got a problem. His ball club, no matter how well they do in the regular season, can't seem to pull off a championship game, leading to the annual defection of his best players to better, wealthier teams, for much more money. He's frustrated and desperate for a new idea. Enter Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill in the most mature, and most finely executed role of his career.

Brand is a young Yale grad who is convinced that the current method of valuing players is fundamentally flawed. Looks, strength, personal habits, all the criteria used to decide who has the potential to be a star is immaterial when it comes to the simple truism that the only way to win a game is round the bases, and the only way to that is to get on base in the first place. Basically, it's a numbers game, and instead of looking for big, flashy powerhouses, Brand convinces Beane that he needs to be looking for solid, trainable players who have a tendency to get on base. Brand's theories are based on the work of an earlier baseball philosopher named Bill James, whose ideas were ridiculed and tossed aside in the 1970s.

It's no surprise that James' work would be vilified. What fun is that? Distilling all the glory and romance of America's pastime to a series of simple equations. No one wants that, and while "Moneyball" does place us squarely in Beane's corner, it never goes so far as to suggest that his methods were 100 percent correct.

Beane and Brand commence to shaking up the team, hiring a bunch of no-name no-accounts who just happened to have the right number on the right chart. The scouts went nuts. The fans nearly revolted, and for a while, it looked like all the naysayers were correct.

However, given time, Beane and his Oakland A's achieved something no one had ever done before. You might imagine a movie about baseball statistics would be dull, but not with Aaron Sorkin at the typewriter. Sorkin is the master of the White House walk-and-talk, and he even succeeded in making a geek like Mark Zuckerberg and the nerdy little computer program he wrote seem genuinely gripping. Sorkin has come up with an excellent script in "Moneyball," and with Pitt and Hill at the top of their games, it's a can't miss combination.

"Moneyball" is adapted from a best-selling non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, who's having a remarkably good run of luck after watching his previous work, "The Blind Side," single-handedly reignite Sandra Bullock's star. Whether "Money" will do the kind of business "Blind Side" did is anyone's guess, but I'd bet no. This latest is a better movie, by far, but "Blind Side" was about hope and charity and "Moneyball" is about how numbers don't lie. It's about hope and charity, too, but there's no easy heartwarming hook.

For me, however, it's no contest. "Moneyball" is about baseball, a great sport, great tradition, America's pastime. "The Blind Side" is about football, a game where a bunch of sweaty behemoths crash into each other for a few hours until someone finally blows a whistle and yells "that's enough!" Baseball is a better sport than football. Chew on that and try to forget my aspersions of the talented Mr. Redford.

Grade: A

"Moneyball" is rated PG-13 for language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski, and who freely admits to knowing nothing about sports, to never having played sports on any level, and who is just joking about football. Really.