I know nothing at all about baseball and even less about statistics but I was enthralled by Bennett Miller’s stirring adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 non-fiction book Moneyball; a film about how America’s national sport was transformed not by a talented new player or an inspirational manager but by a guy with a spreadsheet.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a retired baseball player who, after failing to fulfil his promise on the field, became the general manager of the impoverished Oakland Athletics, who are struggling in the Major League. Beane’s already desperate situation becomes even more hopeless when, just before the start of the 2002 season, the owner of the club sells three of his star players. After a fruitless search for replacements, hampered by a dwindling salary budget, Beane meets and is impressed by a pudgy Yale economics graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who proposes a new formula for sporting success.

With his thick glasses and sheen of sweat, even when sat at his computer, Brand is nobody’s idea of an athlete but he has developed a statistical analysis that values players based on their core competencies. In short, Brand argues, an ordinary player who can be relied on to do what is required a certain percentage of the time is worth more than a naturally skilful player who will do something extraordinary once in a while. Brand hasn’t reached his conclusions by watching a lot of baseball; he absorbs reams of statistics that tell him what combination of players will produce the most runs and stop the other team from scoring. The Corinthian spirit of sport doesn’t enter into the equation; success is all about the data. It sounds simple, but Brand’s theories are revolutionary in a sport that still clings to heart-warming notions of soul and tradition. Burrowing into the depths of his computer, Brand emerges with a ragtag squad of seemingly washed-up players that can fit in the new system and, more importantly, the team can afford to buy. Beane has tried it the old way and it hasn’t worked. He’s ready to try anything.

Despite vehement objections from his backroom staff, Beane hires the players the computer has selected, including a pitcher with an unorthodox throw Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) and Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), whose injuries have left him with no feeling in his left arm. Beane’s taciturn team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is baffled into near silence but sure enough, the team starts to win. And then they can’t stop winning.

Director Bennett Miller and his screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian cut through the complications of the sport itself, and Brand’s mathematical formulas, to tell a sharp, simple story about a mismatched pair of underdogs, the gung-ho jock and the deadpan boffin, who beat an unfair game. Beane is the former baseball prodigy still frustrated by never quite making it as a star while Brand is the smartest kid in the room, whose genius with numbers goes unappreciated. The chemistry between this decidedly odd couple carries the film as they struggle to form a working language somewhere between macho maxims and mind-bending mathematics. It’s a fine comedy double act, perfectly pitched. As the season is played out in a combination of archive television footage and convincing reconstructions, we learn more about Pitt’s Beane. A maverick loner, divorced from his wife (Robin Wright) and seemingly friendless, Miller’s attempts to give Beane a fully rounded character fall prey to sentimentalism at times but even a couple of dewy-eyed songs from his guitar-strumming daughter (Kerris Dorsey), can’t dent Pitt’s fine performance.

Like last year’s The Social Network, also written by Sorkin, Moneyball turns an unlikely subject into something fascinating; an All-American fable about the value of innovation, trusting in instinct and beating the odds.

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