- - Thursday, September 22, 2011

What does it take to win at major league baseball? Drive, passion, certainty, conviction, intuition, experience, talent, practice, money - they’re all important. But in “Moneyball,” it turns out that the key to winning games is mostly just math.

Ostensibly, “Moneyball” is a sports film. But it’s really a movie about management and decision-making, about business strategy and execution, about the power of numbers and our capacity to use them to our advantage. Even more than that, it’s a movie about science, about information, about the triumph of rationalism over superstition.

That may not sound very exciting. How emotionally engaging could a movie about math and management really be? And yet despite - or perhaps because of - its nerdy analytical sensibility, “Moneyball” pulls out a big win without seeming too calculated. You might say it’s statistically significant entertainment.

Based on Michael Lewis’ acclaimed 2003 book of the same name, “Moneyball” faithfully tells the story of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (a squinty, brassy Brad Pitt, finally growing into middle age) took on baseball’s establishment to turn a small-market team with a tiny budget into a playoff-worthy powerhouse.

But although the movie recreates a handful of pivotal plays from the A’s 2002 season, the focus isn’t on the field or the players themselves. Instead, it’s on the clubhouse, and Beane’s innovative process for picking and fielding players.

When the film opens, Beane’s challenge is to replace some of his best players using one of the smallest budgets in professional ball. Against the advice of his senior staff, he hires and relies heavily on Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a quiet young Yale grad with an economics degree.

Brand, a fictional character who appears to be modeled on the A’s real-life Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, is a disciple of a then-minor theory of baseball analysis known as sabermetrics: Rather than make risky, expensive bets on a player’s intangible talents, Brand counsels Beane to focus strictly on statistical trends, looking for obscure but quantifiable qualities that other teams undervalue.

For the rest of the movie, then, it’s Beane against the baseball establishment. Baseball is a game for traditionalists and sentimentalists, many of whom treat it with almost religious devotion. But Beane, by ignoring old-school intuition, was bucking the game’s orthodoxy.

Eventually, though, the statistics-based strategy begins to pan out. When it does, it’s literally a game changer - one that’s since transformed the way many top major league teams play.

“Moneyball” offers no comparable cinematic revolution. It’s a finely crafted piece of traditionalist entertainment that resists Hollywood’s current mania for noisy spectacle and cheap storytelling shortcuts - its suspense and humor are earned, not demanded.

Nor does it get bogged down in technical details. Working from an understated, surprisingly funny screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, director Bennett Miller doesn’t burden viewers with too much statistical minutiae - he offers montages of spreadsheets and whiteboard equations that give the impression of complexity without turning the movie into a math class.

Instead, he sticks to the fundamentals: human beings, and their struggles. “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” Beane says, wrestling with the passion-dampening implications of his analytical strategy. “Moneyball” makes the case that deeper math made the game more exciting, not less, by giving clever underdogs a chance. In the end, it all adds up.

★★★1/2

TITLE: “Moneyball”

CREDITS: Directed by Bennett Miller; screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

RATING: PG-13 for locker-room shenanigans, foul language

RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS