By Elias Savada.
There’s an unsettling blandness flowing through The Catcher Was a Spy, a well photographed and impressively designed film about a fascinating character who made a mark in two wildly divergent professions. It’s a fictionalized account of Major League Baseball player Morris “Moe” Berg, as based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 bestselling biography The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. Perhaps the most brainy athlete of his era, with an undergraduate diploma from Princeton and a postgraduate degree in law from Columbia, he spent many seasons catching hardballs for several teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Senators, before coaching for a few more years. His quick wit and massive knowledge was so superior he was a frequent guest on the long-running radio program Information, Please, a quiz show of the intellectual set.
Hall of fame manager Casey Stengel called him “the strangest man to ever play baseball.” In 1934 he began spying, apparently on a whim, when he traveled to Japan with an American team of All-Stars (including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) for a series of exhibition games. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Berg joined the war effort as an analyst, a job that would lead him to work at the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (later known as the C.I.A.). He began his mid-life with an odd (maybe not so much, considering the World War II backdrop) career switch – as one of the federal government’s more unusual employees. A baseball star turned spy.
Sadly, this film by Australian director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) turns a dynamic story opportunity into a mundane biopic. Berg was a very talented guy who spoke multiple languages. Paul Rudd, an affably charming actor known for his droll comedic roles and as the smallest superhero in the Marvel Comic Universe (his latest entry, Ant-Man and The Wasp, opens in two weeks), offers an earnest interpretation of Berg, especially with his control of the several German, Italian, etc. sentences he tosses about in conversation. Yet, there is just so much Rudd can do to try to capture any excitement in the character. The script by Robert Rodat just doesn’t develop Berg beyond a shallow condensation of life achievement highlights. Twenty years ago Rodat’s script for Saving Private Ryan, another WWII-themed story, earned him Oscar, Golden Globe, and Writers Guild of America nominations for best original screenplay. Maybe his years involved as creator/writer on Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies alien invasion series on TNT pushed him away from the rigorous screenwriting demands of the big screen.
There are some furtive references to Berg’s sexual preferences that he brushes off in the no-gays-allowed days of government employment – moments which offer up one of the film’s more memorable lines, “I’m good at keeping secrets.” As a secular Jew (Rudd is also Jewish), Berg plays the subtle guilt card when tasked with the film’s central plot, to (or not to) assassinate Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), suspected of helping the Nazis develop a fission bomb. At a meet-and-greet in Zurich (for which Prague sits in adeptly), the cat-and-mouse antics barely raise an eyebrow.
Despite a generous show of familiar faces in the cast, many come and go without making much of a splash in the underwritten script. Sienna Miller is Estella Huni, Berg’s “love interest,” who gets left high and dry after Berg becomes a spy. Guy Pearce provides a rugged performance as the army handler of Berg (the spy) and Paul Giamatti’s American-Dutch physicist Samuel Goudsmit, a trio sent behind the battle lines to facilitate the meet up with Heisenberg. Bit parts are filled, adequately and unremarkably, by Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Connie Nielsen, and others.
Despite the attractive cinematography by Andrij Parekh (mimicking the work he did on The Zookeeper’s Wife) and the pitch-perfect period production design from Luciana Arrighi (Anna and the King), there is no heart in The Catcher Was a Spy‘s anecdotal structure. Unlike its subject, the film doesn’t play smart. Moe would have considered it a passed ball.
If you wait until next year, there will be a film about the spycatcher that should tweak your interest. DC filmmaker Aviva Kempner, whose acclaimed Jewish-centric films about broadcasting pioneer Gertrude Berg (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg), Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (Rosenwald), and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the first big Jewish baseball star, has her eye back on baseball, history, and heroism with Moe Berg, footage from which the director sneak previewed at this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).