This based-on-a-true-story drama gives Brad Pitt his most satisfying role in years and is a worthy addition to the canon of sports movies and its deserving sub-category – baseball movies.
Pitt plays Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. A Major-League baseball team, but think more Blackburn Rovers than Manchester United. Bean didn’t match up as a player – never showing the promise the scouts saw and this underachievement drives him as a manager. After the Oakland As end another underwhelming season he decides to apply serious rational to the volatile intangibles of scouting. Their club can’t match up financially to the competition so another route must be found to source players.
No longer will he rely on his back room of experienced scouts (the conflicts of which are brilliantly evoked by a group of real-life scouts and coaches) but instead an idea, long dormant in baseball circles (and first propounded by one-time security guard Bill James) that computer generated analysis (or sabermetrics) can build the perfect combination of players is dusted down and, for the first time ever, applied in a serious manner to the game. This isn’t playing the percentages; this is playing the percentages of the percentages.
Michael Lewis (he of The Big Short) wrote the book on which the screenplay is based and kudos to Steven Zalian and Aaron Sorkin for fashioning a tightly-written script, full of great flashes of humour and the mechanics of sports analysis. It’s never dull, always interesting and full of enlightening corkers such as the supremely logical assertion that a winning baseball team of 25 players can surely be made from a pool of 15,000. That was the pitch of Peter Brand (or Paul Podesta in real life, as played by Jonah Hill) the catalyst for what would turn out to be a major rethink in how teams approach player acquisition.
As the film winds into its subject its easy to forget how engrossed you’ve just become. There’s an effortless string pulling by director Bennet Miller (Capote). And similar to all great sporting cinema, you don’t need to be an aficionado to enjoy it. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the coach who doesn’t want to implement the radical new strategic approach provides another neat pivot point in a movie that easily saunters to first base, joining other contemporary classics and baseball brethren Eight Men Out and Bull Durham.