The buzz surrounding this expensive zombie-apocalypse movie has been largely negative but it turns out to be agreeable genre fare, laced with some spectacular set-pieces.
Brad Pitt plays a UN troubleshooter who has to escort his family to safety after a virus turns Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) into bloodthirsty, rampaging zombies.
From there he is recruited to find the source of the disease and his journey takes him to South Korea, Israel and Wales, all the while avoiding infection himself.
Although this is essentially a big budget, apocalyptic disaster movie – reworking elements of 28 Weeks Later (2007), Contagion (2011) and Independence Day (1996) – Pitt has the screen presence to keep our attention hold as the film shifts rapidly around the world.
At times it moves too fast, but the action is competently handled and there are some interesting ideas laced amidst the chaos, notably the real world hotspots such as South Korea and Israel making their way into the mix.
Though those traces remain the novel upon which it was based was apparently much more political (exploring the issues from a global perspective and having the disease begin in China), which meant they were trimmed for the demands of the global marketplace.
Whilst this is a shame, the central set piece set in Israel is visually stunning: when crazed zombie hordes attack a walled Jerusalem, they resemble a biblical plague of insects.
The false safety the Israeli survivors feel perhaps reflects real world anxieties and the visual effects are blended in well with the live action.
Just before Pitt lands in Israel we see a nuclear explosion in the distance and when he lands his contact there seems to have too much faith in the city wall keeping the zombies out.
It is left up to the audience to decide what these images might mean by audiences can infer parallels with contemporary strife in the Holy Land.
The film’s final third has been the subject of much speculation, with reported rewrites and re-shoots ballooning the budget, but whatever the cost it just about works.
A scene involving a drinks machine is the only jarring moment in a tense climax in which Forster and his sound editors load on the tension.
The casting of relatively unknown actors in supporting roles (Mireille Enos as Pitt’s wife and Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier) is also a nice touch for a film of this scale.
Ultimately it may not make a huge profit for Paramount and its multitude of producers, but for a summer blockbuster it is refreshing to see one not based on a comic book.
As an ex-player, Beane had grown up in era where scouts and grizzled veterans had stifled both his own career and the true potential of players who weren’t superstars on big salaries.
In late 2001 when his star players have been traded to bigger teams (“organ donors to the rich”) he finds inspiration in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate who can spot underrated baseball players the bigger teams are ignoring (his character is a composite largely based on Paul DePodesta).
What follows is a movie every bit as brilliant and radical as the system that went on to revolutionise US baseball.
Fundamentally, it is a compelling portrait of a man motivated by his past to change the present, but it also quietly subverts the traditional US sports movie by not pandering to clichés of underdogs triumphing against the odds.
Director Bennett Miller brings an unusual aesthetic to the genre by making the off-field action more dramatic than what happens on the pitch, which dovetails beautifully with Beane’s superstitious compulsion to never watch the games.
The harsh realities of running a sports team at the highest level are conveyed through his battles with coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), doubting scouts who naturally resent the new data driven approach and the chorus of critics amongst the media and fans.
There are personal dramas too: flashbacks of Beane’s early playing career are skilfully woven into his motivational backstory, whilst his relationship with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is both touching and central to the story.
The main challenge with this approach is to make things visually interesting, but the choice of DP Wally Pfister was shrewd: his brand of subtle lighting and shooting that serves the story wisely keeps the focus on the characters and the unfolding drama.
As for the screenplay – collaboration credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin – it manages to take the human drama behind a baseball franchise and make it a wider metaphor for anyone battling against personal demons or institutional arrogance.
One of the reasons the book became an unlikely bestseller and proved influential in both the sport and business world, is because by mining a very specific episode, it ultimately tapped into universal truths.
Although the film is an underdog story of sorts, it explores how people in a bad place are forced to become creative (they have nothing to lose) and how easy solutions (in this case ‘on base percentage’) to difficult problems can be so hard to see.
It also documents a time when old school sporting philosophies based on hunches gave way to statistical analysis powered by computers and spread sheets. Or more simply: when the geeks beat the jocks at their own game.
But it’s the human drama that makes Moneyball really tick: Beane is a fascinating character and the exploration of why he went against conventional wisdom lies the heart of the film, but also possibly puts another interpretation on the title.
The film puts forward the daring notion that money ruined his playing career – his motivation as general manager was partly driven by a desire to push back against a sport corrupted by cash.
Brad Pitt gives perhaps his finest performance in the lead role, not only convincing as charismatic leader of a sports team but as a more vulnerable father and someone struggling with the past.
Jonah Hill might seem an unlikely choice as Beane’s assistant, but he plays the straight man role very well and his chemistry with Pitt suggests his very casting highlights the ‘hidden value’ concept his character explains in the movie.
There are also solid turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman (showing a subtle, quiet gruffness), Chris Pratt as the first underrated player they sign and Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter, whose presence is always keenly felt in the background.
Where the film really triumphs is in how it applies the low-key approach Miller used so successfully in Capote to a big studio film about a fascinating chapter in America’s most beloved sport.
The use of MLB footage and real locations grounds the film in a realistic setting far removed from the glossy visions of previous sports movies, whilst Mychael Danna’s wonderful, atmospheric score sounds like Philip Glass’ scoring an Errol Morris baseball documentary.
Given the tortured production history of the project, which saw a noted director (Steven Soderbergh) leave over creative differences and one A-list screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) hired to re-write another (Steve Zaillian), it is a miracle that the film exists at all.
Part of that must lie down to the persistence of Brad Pitt (who also serves as producer) and it is tempting to read parallels into his struggle to get this made at a major studio (Sony Pictures) with Beane’s story.
To extend the analogy, Pitt is Beane (protagonist struggling against received wisdom), Bennett Miller is Brand (the unconventional catalyst), Sony Pictures is the Oakland A’s (an organisation trying to meet commercial demands) and Major League Baseball is Hollywood (large institution where passion frequently clashes with pragmatism).
In a year in which he has also delivered a powerful performance and produced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, we can be grateful that a movie star like Pitt is using his influence to make interesting movies rather than just counting money.
This takes on a new relevance as the wonderfully staged final scenes click into place.
Perhaps the most potent aspect of Moneyball is that it grows in your mind long after you’ve seen it, which for a movie belonging to a genre prone to cliché is really quite an achievement.
Maybe it can also function as a parable for major studios to keep looking for those quietly interesting projects rather than just the loud, costly franchises.
The trailer for Terrence Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life has surfaced online.
Set in the 1950s, it is the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Jack (Hunter McCracken) growing up in the Midwest with his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), and his life as an older man (Sean Penn).