Although Moneyball is directed by Bennett Miller, it’s really an Aaron Sorkin picture (Sorkin wrote the screenplay with Steven Zaillian). To those familiar with Sorkin’s writing in The West Wing or The Social Network, his approach here will be familiar. Moneyball is a film drunk on fast-paced business-speak, on how insiders wheel and deal, and how systems—companies, networks, baseball teams—work. The representative scene of the film is one in which Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the Oakland A’s, makes a series of phone calls in an attempt to trade players, with some help from his brainy stats-whiz consultant (played solidly by Jonah Hill). It’s dizzying to watch these men in action, as it is perhaps always exhilarating to watch smart people work. But this scene, which showcases Sorkin’s strengths as a writer, also says everything about his limitations. Sorkin only gets outside of his own head in order to enter into someone else’s; for him, compelling cinema is about watching people solve problems doggedly but calculatedly. He’s a rationalist wordsmith working in a medium that lends itself better to images—to the language of dreams rather than formulas.
I’m aware that I quietly praised A Dangerous Method for being a movie about ideas (though I noted that that was also, paradoxically, one of its own drawbacks). I’m also an unabashed fan of other films and filmmakers that deal with the cerebral, the intellectual, and the rational, that prefer realism to expressionism, and that indulge in the pleasures of good, thick dialogue. But there’s something particularly cocky and self-satisifed about Sorkin’s films that has always turned me off—the conviction that stories can (or should) be told in big blocks of shop talk. At its best (and, all told, Moneyball is probably Sorkin’s best effort to date) his work tells us things we didn’t know before, but it doesn’t show us anything we’ve never seen before. Nor does Miller’s energetic but misguided direction, with its montage sequences of figures, statistics, Excel spreadsheets. Moneyball proves that money—at least when it’s presented in shots of people sitting around tables crunching numbers—doesn’t "read" well on screen. (It’s a variation on the rule that even when the outcome may be dire, sequences in which people frantically type on computers are rarely suspenseful.) No matter how many characters in the film talk about how baseball can’t be boiled down to numbers or stats, that it’s about passion, instinct, and other indefinable qualities, Sorkin, Zaillian and Miller ultimately side with the “moneyball” philosophy that everything can be broken down and managed strategically, and it shows in the film’s workmanlike approach.
The biggest source of pleasure in the film is Pitt’s performance. Pitt’s showier, more “high-concept” roles (ex. Benjamin Button) have never impressed me, but here and earlier this year in The Tree of Life he’s allowed to be natural, and he’s shined. With his laconic personality, Pitt is better suited to lower-key parts like Beane, where he’s able to relax into the material. It’s a very good performance because Pitt makes it look effortless; it isn’t mannered or overworked in the way that so many “great” performances are.