THE CATCHER WAS A SPY
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
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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Jewish_Major_League_Baseball_players. 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+