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'The Catcher Was A Spy': World War II Biopic Barely Singles

Jun 21, 2018

The following baseball terms apply to The Catcher Was a Spy, a modestly appointed biopic about Moe Berg, a major-league-catcher-turned-OSS-agent during World War II: "Down the middle," "a can of corn," "passed ball," "below the Mendoza line," "designated for assignment."

In other words, it's a consistent underachiever, as washed-out and terminally mediocre as Berg himself was at the end of his long stint in the majors. Or, to quote a favorite schoolyard taunt: We want a catcher, not a belly scratcher. And there's an abundance of belly scratching going on in this film.

Based on Nicholas Dawidoff's 1994 biography, The Catcher Was a Spy is about an extraordinary figure by any measure, a Jewish athlete who attended Princeton and the Sorbonne, spoke multiple languages, and was alternately referred to as the strangest and smartest player in baseball. Director Ben Lewin, who made the lovely sex-surrogate drama The Sessions with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in 2012, warns the audience repeatedly that Berg was an enigma even to those closest to him, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Wiki-details of his exploits are dutifully rendered, but there's little insight into who this man was or how his double lives were reconciled.

Ideally cast as Berg, the ever-ageless and versatile Paul Rudd plays him as a man of boundless talent and emotional reserve, the mark of a life lived in secret, long before the government called him to service. As he closes out his career as a light-hitting back-bencher with the Boston Red Sox, Berg seems like a natural candidate to shift into coaching, with the intellect, knowledge and temperament for the job. But with World War II ramping up in Europe, Berg quietly sets about joining the cause. While touring with an exhibition squad in Japan before Pearl Harbor, he takes the initiative to shoot footage of its harbors and naval shipyards, having heard buzz of Japanese engagement in the war. The footage, along with his Ivy League connections, is enough to convince an OSS general (Jeff Daniels) to bring him on board.

After logging time doing desk work, Berg gets the opportunity to take the lead on a dangerous secret mission. As the United States rushes to become the first atomic power with the Manhattan Project, there's concern that the Germans, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), will beat them to this devastating technology. While there's doubt over Heisenberg's scientific advances — and further doubt about his moral willingness to create a bomb — the threat is significant enough that Berg is asked to assassinate him. With another scientist (Paul Giamatti) and a military escort (Guy Pearce) at his side, Berg travels to a fateful meeting in Zurich, Switzerland in 1944, where he's expected to learn more about Heisenberg and take dramatic action if necessary.

He's also, in the film's telling, a closeted gay man. In the early-going, Berg has a live-in girlfriend named Estella (Sienna Miller), but keeps her at arm's length, stealing away for surreptitious trysts in the city's darker corners. He refuses to take Estella with him to Japan, where he also hooks up with another man. The Catcher Was a Spy handles these affairs with a discretion that Berg himself would have likely admired, but this aspect of his life is woefully undernourished here. Lewin treats Berg's committed bachelorhood more as proof of his deft spycraft than an essential, repressed part of his being.

Then again, the film does have insight into Berg's eagerness to blend in and embrace his role as an outsider within his own country. In a telling scene, a friend at the Princeton Club apologizes for a choir that's been asked to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" — but Berg not only deflects the apology, but raises his voice as loudly as anyone in the room. His patriotism reads as both genuine and a cover for his true self, which is exactly the sort of contradiction a better film would have explored more deeply.

Instead, The Catcher Was a Spy seems too confident that its can-you-believe-it true story will be enough to carry the day without any further emphasis. For a film of such historical sweep — and the big-name ensemble to match — it's remarkably thin and by-the-numbers, barely cresting 90 minutes in its rush to get Berg to his moment of truth. It's like Berg has performed a final covert action from beyond the grave: He's made his own biopic disappear into the shadows.

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