Bennett Miller + Moneyball = an extraordinary home run

After only two features both nominated for ‘Best Picture’ Oscars, Bennett Miller is truly a director to watch and what an extraordinary picture he’s made with MONEYBALL.

Whoah. Nominated for ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Picture’ with your debut film Capote. So director Bennett Miller how do you follow that? With a movie about baseball and starring Brad Pitt that’s how. MONEYBALL first shone for me with its gorgeously put together trailer that I just had to post about that last year and when I then heard that the screenplay was by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin – two of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters who are on a fabulous high right now with The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network respectively – I thought this could be very good indeed.

And indeed it is. It’s extraordinary.

‘What are you really worth?’ says the film’s tagline and so when we meet Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, following the latest stealing of all his good players in 2001 by the premier teams for more money, he’s contemplating this very question. What can he do with the money he has? How can he create a winning team with almost no budget? What he does, is to have faith in an idea.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as Peter Brand in Moneyball

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as Peter Brand

That idea comes from a young Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (a very winning performance by Jonah Hill), who applies mathematical theory to the selection of players that defies the scouts and the way baseball teams had been constructed for 150 years. And the game changes. Sports movies can be difficult beasts to turn into winning films, as they often involve stats and language that people outside of the game don’t understand but what Miller has done so successfully with this, is to tell this real story with the same authenticity for the period and the same simplicity in the composition that he brought to his debut and the result is another film of understated, emotional power.

In Capote, he examined in beautiful detail the story behind the creation of the first (and greatest) non-fiction book ever written In Cold Blood. We witnessed a young director with a vision: the opening panoramic shots of the wheat fields brought to mind Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven for me; the plain palette of colour that was used was simple and effective; the way silence and sound were placed throughout the film was artfully chosen; and at its centre, was a seriously great piece of acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman won almost every award going (including the Oscar) for his title performance as the fascinating personality who was Truman Capote – and absolutely rightly so.

Although Toby Jones was also terrific as Truman in Douglas McGrath’s rival film Infamous, he didn’t have Dan Futterman’s sharp script to work from. With its stellar name cast, Infamous was certainly notable for bringing together actors like Daniel Craig, Sandra Bullock and Sigourney Weaver but I think Capote beat it hands down, by populating its cast with a bunch of great character actors – Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, Chris Cooper as Officer Dewey, Amy Ryan as his wife, Bruce Greenwood as Truman’s lover Jack and last but not least, the absolutely superb Clifton Collins Jr as the conflicted killer Perry Smith. The result was an understated and deeply affecting gem of a movie.

Miller assembles another accomplished creative team behind the camera with MONEYBALL. This time there’s the superb Wally Pfister (the Nolan Batman man) as director of photography, Jess Gonchor as production designer (a Coen brothers fave with True Grit being a recent success) and reuniting with him from Capote is Mychael Danna, with another amazing score – a fusion of music and sound that terrifically underpins the drama.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe in Moneyball

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe

And in front of the camera, he has Brad Pitt in a pitch-perfect performance as Beane – a man trying haunted by the shadow of what he once could have become and realising what he needs to do now to change his future. Then there’s Jonah Hill who is a revelation as Brand – a calm, super-intelligent guy who finally finds someone who’s on his level. Like Pitt, he’s been rightly nominated for an Oscar and let’s hope we see more dramatic roles for Hill judging from this performance.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, working again with his old friend Miller, gives a beautifully taciturn, gruff portrayal of the team’s coach Art Howe and once again Miller has a string of ace performances in the supporting cast. There’s Robin Wright as Beane’s self-possessed ex-wife Sharon, Brent Jennings is the very dry-witted Oakland As trainer Ron Washington, Ken Medlock, Nick Searcy, and Glenn Morshower are all no-nonsense as some of the Beane’s old-school baseball scouts and Chris Pratt, who like Jonah Hill has been mostly known for more comedic roles up till now, is wonderful as one of the As potential new star players Scott Hatteberg. There are also a couple of great cameos from Reed Diamond as rival team manager Mark Shapiro and Arliss Howard as the Boston Red Sox owner John Henry who believes Beane’s vision is the way forward. I must finally mention Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s almost teenage daughter Casey – she gives a lovely, warm performance (not Hollywood cutesy at all) and her scenes with Pitt have a really natural, easy way about them, with her often worrying more about how he’s doing than the other round like she’s the parent.

I think MONEYBALL might be in too tough competition this year to walk off with one of the awards come February 26th but it’s great that the Academy is again recognising Miller for the superb artist he is. I can only look forward in eager anticipation to his next film Foxcatcher (again with Capote writer Dan Futterman) telling the true story of a paranoid schizophrenic John du Pont who killed the Olympic athlete David Schultz and starring Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo.

I see a third home run on its way.