Whenever you have an American sports movie, the first question anyone asks is "will it travel"? Will it, in other words, play to audiences outside the US, to those unfamiliar with the game in question? In the case of Moneyball, I can't say I left any the wiser about baseball, its jargon or even how the World Series works. But does it travel? You better believe it.
This second feature from Bennett Miller, who brought us the marvellous Capote in 2005, is not a sports movie in the traditional sense. There is no home-run hit out of the ground in the final minute of the game, no rookie triumph or injury-prone veteran overcoming the odds. If anything, it's about statistics and number crunching - not exactly, in Hollywood terminology, "sexy" and hardly fitting, you might think, for a genre that trades in skill and stamina.
Indeed, if Moneyball is a sports movie, it is only one in the way The Social Network is a film about Facebook. While the latter used the website to deliver a Machiavellian tale of greed and duplicity, this uses baseball to spin its David and Goliath yarn in terms of thwarted ambitions and the price of failure.
It's no coincidence, then, that this is co-scripted by The Social Network's Oscar-winning Aaron Sorkin, who offers up more of that trademark sumptuous dialogue of his.
Based on Michael Lewis's 2003 true-life account, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Brad Pitt plays Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, a one-time player who never fulfilled his potential on the pitch or in his home life (his wife, played by Robin Wright, has since remarried). Nearly bankrupt, and with their best players continually poached by wealthier outfits, Beane is faced with that age-old sports problem: how to build a winning team with limited resources.
The solution comes from an unlikely source, an Ivy League-educated maths genius named Peter Brand (Superbad's Jonah Hill). Ditching the old-school notions of baseball scouts, who often go on gut instincts as much as anything, his idea is to choose players solely based on OPS ("on-base plus slugging"), a percentage that analyses a player's ability to score runs. Suddenly, those previously overlooked or discarded are roped into the team while underperforming star names are moved on.
Needless to say, the Oakland A's start moving up the leagues, as Beane and Brand's theories pay dividends, much to the shock of the team's coach Art Howe (Miller's Capote star Philip Seymour Hoffman). Yet those expecting a crowd-pleasing finale may be surprised at the way Sorkin and his co-writer Steve Zaillian guide the film; in baseball terms, it's something of a curveball. Operating under the pragmatic guidance of Miller, Pitt offers an understated yet compelling character study of a man fighting for respect in a game that's never quite given it to him. It may not be his most outlandish performance, compared with Fight Club or Twelve Monkeys, but it's one of his most considered. It's a trait that typifies this work - one that might just be the best baseball movie not about baseball ever made.