THE CATCHER WAS A SPY – movie review


IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ben Lewin
Screenwriter:  Robert Rodat
Cast:  Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/9/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
The Catcher Was A Spy - Movie Posters
I was about to say that there’s not a heck of a lot of major league baseball players who are Jewish but got straightened out by Wikipedia Morris (Moe) Berg was not only one of them, though not much more than a mediocre catcher.  His forte was intellectual.  He graduated from Princeton and Columbia, knew 12 languages including Latin, Turkish, Japanese, Sanskrit and Hindi, and read 10 newspapers daily.  In other words he was a Renaissance man, ideally suited, our military believed, for acting out a project as a spy during World War 2 and an assassin.  In a best-selling book by Nicholas Dawidoff “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” the egghead-jock was known as the brainiest man who ever played for the Majors.  Ben Lewin, who adapts the book along with Robert Rodat give us nothing to doubt that assessment.

The biopic, which takes some liberties with truth, fashions Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) as a guy who was not being entirely self-deprecatory when he describes his baseball achievements without a shred of bravado when folks crowd around him and ask him to autograph a ball.  But ultimately he does such a fantastic job as a spy that he was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can get for contributing to the national interests of the United States.

But something is amiss in the film.  Somehow a picture about espionage—about a plan to assassinate a German nuclear scientist—comes across as not only old-fashioned (which Lewin may have intended) but as plain dull.  There are stereotypical scenes at night during rain and fog which makes the viewer think of the hoariest of clichés “It was a dark and stormy night.”  And while Rudd successfully passes himself off as an intellectual, in part by playing a chess game without a board and with the man he is expected to kill, he is too bland for the role and is better suited for films like “Wet Hot American Summer,” “Ant Man,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”  He does have a woman friend, Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) who is itching to marry him and who participates in one sexual scene which, however innocent today, would never have been shown if the film were released in the 1940s.

Before the war began, Berg is touring Japan playing exhibition games with American baseball stars, but he shows his capacity for spying by filming military targets from the roof of a tall building.  While playing catcher for the White Sox, Red Sox, Indians and Senators he is thought to be “queer,” and in one instance he is followed down the street by a bully and comes off able to defend himself and then some.  When William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels), a high official in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), later to morph in the CIA, is considering sending Berg out on his assassination mission, the catcher is asked whether he is “queer” and answers “I can keep a secret”—the perfect reply in that his mission requires great secrecy.

The baseball scene is all too brief and so is the battle action. When Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giammatti), a physicist working for the U.S. in Italy, becomes trapped in a shootout with German occupiers, Goudsmit comes off as a fish out of water but acts the part in a clownish and embarrassing way.  Ultimately Berg is smuggled from Italy across the Swiss border to Zurich where he does meet the would-be victim, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). While we in the audience might be tempted to think “Shoot the guy and stop talking,” we may be missing the point.  Berg is using his intellect to ignore the order at least temporarily while he tries to calculate whether Heisenberg would defect to the Allied effort.  Germany did not develop nuclear weapons.

Though Berg would hang out in gay bars, there is little indication that he was homosexual, and in any rate, the suggestion as conjured by scripter Robert Rodat is superfluous, a possible invention that does a disservice to the hero.  Andrij Parekh filmed the action in Prague and Boston, taking full advantage of cloak and dagger proceedings on dark and foggy nights.  English is spoken throughout with an occasional injection of Italian and Japanese.

Rated R.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – C+
Technical – B-
Overall – C+

THE DIVINE ORDER – movie review

  • ​THE DIVINE ORDER (Die göttliche Ordnung)

    Zeitgeist Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, 411 Celeb
    Grade: A-
    Director:  Petra Biondina Volpe
    Written by: Petra Biondina Volpe
    Cast: Marie Leuenberger, Maximilian Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, Marta Zoffoli
    Screened at:Critics’ link, NYC, 9/8/17
    Opens: October 27, 2017

    The Divine Order Poster #1
    In my next life I’d like to be born in Switzerland.  Every movie filmed there makes the country look like paradise.  Just think: no terrorism, no military actions since the Sonderbund War of November 1847—and that was a within the current borders of the country and not against a foreign power.  Great for skiing, even for driving through the beautiful Alps.  Yet, lots of women were unhappy, at least before 1971, when they did not have the right to vote in federal elections.  Wait: how did we get sidetracked and talking about Saudi Arabia?  No, believe it or not, Switzerland.   Kinder, Küche,Kirche—Children, kitchen, church.  That’s not all: women could not work without their husband’s consent.  In Europe only Lichtenstein women could not go to the polls until 1984.

    There’s always room for a documentary on the suffrage movement, but a narrative film can be so much more entertaining and even more insightful.  “The Divine Order” is the one to top, eschewing a nationwide story in favor of concentrating on just one small town within striking distance of Zurich.  Just as in the U.S. where rural areas are generally more conservative than urban locations and more likely to vote Republican, the folks in the German-Swiss village are tradition bound, but the upcoming 1971 referendum made women’s suffrage (not immigration or terrorism) the principal source of political discussion.  One can safely assume that though only men could take part in the referendum which would give women the right to vote, the citizens of cosmopolitan cities like Zurich and Geneva would be more likely to vote yes than those in the countryside.  That’s just the way things are, not only here in the U.S. but in most countries in the world.

    Yet lo and behold, a single voice can change the results even in that village.  Let by one Nora (Marie Leuenberger), so-named to remind us of the liberated Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” the women come around to think of their political future, almost a miracle considering that the women were as likely as the men to oppose liberation.  As the story unfolds, “Die göttliche Ordnung” (the original, Swiss-German title) finds that women in the town become concerned not only with voting rights but with other conditions of the fair sex, including, at least in Nora’s case, with the right to have an orgasm.  (Nora never experienced this, though a meeting led by a Swedish woman would coax her and others to look with pocket mirrors at their labias, noting whether these were in the shape of a tiger, or a fox, of what-have-you, leading the good folks to blush but to go ahead and inspect).

    Emphasizing the women’s limited rights is the case of Nora’s niece Hanna (Ella Rumpf), sent to prison because she stayed out all night smoking weed with a biker her parents disliked. For his part Hans (Maximilian Simonischek), Nora’s handsome husband, has been made department manager in his firm, which makes him all the more likely to forbid his wife to work—which he legally could do.  Though he tells Nora that he approves of women’s right to vote, he cannot express this wish in the presence of the men he works with for fear they would ostracize him and no longer respect his leadership role.  As for women, the so-called Anti-Politicization of Women Committee joins the men in urging the defeat of the referendum, its leader, the Swiss variation of our own National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, formed in 1911 and called “remonstrants.”

    Discussions rise to fever pitch when women, led by Nora and the elderly Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), the latter fashioned on our own Betty Friedan, calls a strike, meeting and staying for days in an Italian restaurant while their men are forced to cook, clean and sweep and presumably do whatever they might do when their wives are not around.  (Surprisingly, when the strike is called, nobody suggested that the rebels become familiar with Aristophanes’ Greek comedy “Lysistrata” written in 411 B.C. in which women refused their men sex until they ended the Peloponnesian War.)

    Director Petra Volpe knows how to move the plot cautiously forward so that when most women, at first hesitant, come around to Nora and Vroni’s point of view, the transformation is earned.  We can believe that women can become radicalized by appealing to both intellectual reasoning and examinations of their labias.  The film is ever so much more entertaining than (I would imagine) a documentary on the suffrage movement would be as it focuses on a village small enough for us in the theater audience to identify individual women and men and to root for those who want nothing more than equal rights for both genders.

    In Swiss German with English subtitles.  The film is Switzerland’s candidate for Oscar consideration.

    Unrated.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?