“The Nazis gave the task of building an atomic bomb to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg. In response, the U.S. government sent a Jewish baseball player to assassinate him. His name was Morris “Moe” Berg.”
Growing up in Puerto Rico, baseball was my first (sports) language…but I’d never heard the name Moe Berg until I sat down to watch The Catcher Was a Spy. Berg played 15 years in the major leagues, but this stylish, uneven movie suggests that baseball was the least of his talents.
“Tell me friend, what did you do before the war?”
The Catcher Was a Spy opens with a brief glimpse of Berg (Paul Rudd) encountering Heisenberg (Bryan Cranston Mark Strong) in Zurich in 1944. The film flashes back eight years to the end of Berg’s unremarkable baseball career, when he takes part in an exhibition tour in Japan. Berg’s .243 lifetime batting average isn’t nearly as impressive as the fact that he can speak about a dozen languages and holds degrees from Princeton, Columbia, and Sorbonne universities. His ease with the Japanese language charms some of the local fans and allows him to form a connection with a history professor (Hiroyuky Sanada) who assures him that war between their two countries is inevitable.
“Moe Berg: the walking enigma.”
Berg’s braininess and penchant for secrecy — the movie strongly hints that he was attracted to men — leads to him being hired by the Office of Strategic Services. (They were also impressed by Berg’s instincts after he recorded some useful footage of Tokyo Bay during his Japanese trip.) Eventually, Berg is given the task of traveling to Europe with intelligence chief Bob Furman (Guy Pearce) and Dutch physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti) to determine if Heisenberg and the Germans were close to being able to make a nuclear bomb.
As outrageous as all of this sounds, The Catcher Was a Spy is based on a true story. And even though the words “based on a true story” are often warped by filmmakers — author Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote the book this movie is based on, says he never found evidence of Berg having a gay relationship — the movie includes enough tidbits about Berg’s life (his appearances on radio quiz show “Information, Please”) and work (Berg really did screen his footage of Tokyo Bay for U.S. intelligence officers) to pass a smell test. Even the movie’s emphasis on his struggles as a closeted man serves a way of conveying that Berg is an intensely private person who is good at keeping a secret.
I can see why director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) and screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) focused on that aspect of Berg’s life; the main character in this film is otherwise a complete blank slate. Lewin presents The Catcher Was a Spy as an old-fashioned World War II-era period piece, with a greater emphasis on fedoras than firepower. (The one action/wartime sequence is more muddled than tense.) As a result, the movie is consistently pleasing to watch, even when there’s not actually a whole lot going on.
The movie’s shockingly excellent cast also helps keep things interesting, even if the actors aren’t used to the best of their abilities. Rudd is as charming as always, which is a useful trait for Berg as he tries to get close to people. But the actor’s performance as Berg never hints at his ability to kill another person. Rudd gets very little help from the script, which doesn’t seem very interested in exploring why this guy wanted to be a spy. (Or what makes him tick at all.)
Meanwhile, it’s almost distracting how overqualified the rest of the cast is. Pearce is one of my favorite actors, so it’s odd seeing him wasted in a role where he basically only gets to shine during a firefight in Italy. Giamatti gets more to do as the conflicted physicist who is potentially helping the U.S. take out former friend Heisenberg, but the actor appears to have only accepted the part if he could do a wonky Dutch accent. But while Strong makes for an effectively enigmatic Heisenberg and Sienna Miller had some potential as the sweetheart that Berg keeps at arm’s length, neither is in the movie long enough to make a strong impact. Speaking of brief appearances, legitimately great actors like Jeff Daniels (as the head of the OSS) and Tom Wilkinson (as the Swiss physicist who arranges the meet between Berg and Heisenberg) pop in for two or three scenes and are gone.
That would be ok if the movie’s center was stronger than it is. It’s too bad because Berg’s life and story are objectively extraordinary, and this movie doesn’t come close to getting the most out of it. The Catcher Was a Spy ends up being like Berg himself: there’s a lot going on here, but it’s only about a .243 hitter in the end.