“The Catcher Was a Spy”
Perhaps a Gay Spy
Director Ben carries a nostalgic charge, allowing us to enjoy 1930s- and ’40s-era costuming and sharp dialogue in “The Catcher Was a Spy”. It is the story of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a catcher for the Boston Red Sox who worked in the Office of Strategic Services as part of the Alsos Mission, which was partially concerned with preventing Germany from developing a fission bomb. Lewin and screenwriter Robert Rodat take the approach that Berg’s unlikely role in World War II comes from his permanent sense of being an outsider. He was a ballplayer with multiple degrees who speaks many languages. He dresses stylishly and the film suggests that espionage is an extension of the evasions that Berg must practice so as to live in society as a Jew and a rumored homosexual. Using his otherness to advantage, Berg travels with a band of men to Italy and Switzerland to find the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), and learn whether or not the scientist is helping the Nazis develop a bomb. The answer to that question will, of course, dictate whether or not Berg is to kill the scientist. Berg’s various closeted tendencies are relegated to the stuff of mechanical character motivation and utilized as handy justification for reducing him to almost nothingness.
Berg was an American hero that was shrouded in mystery in life and in death. Moe Berg was a major league catcher for 15 years and he volunteered for the service before World War II. He felt he wanted to help his country. He was also a highly intellectual professor who spoke seven languages fluently and several others conversationally. As a Jew he was battling a country in Germany that was slaughtering his people. It was hinted that he was gay and because he remained a bachelor until his death, there was nothing to dispel that rumor. Even with his Jewish religion and his sexuality, he was asked to go behind enemy lines and assassinate German physicist, Werner Karl Heisenberg—the man who was supposedly trying to build Germany’s atomic bomb.
Paul Rudd brings as much charisma to the character as is possible. The subject matter is utterly fascinating but the film just does not deliver. It is based on the book by Nicholas Dawidoff but the screenplay falls short of the book. This is epic true tale of a man who was awarded the highest honor in America, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He declined it and this is a fascinating aspect of his life. Berg here is meant embodied those men and women who left their comfortable lives in America and headed overseas to battle an enemy that sought to bring an end to freedom. Rudd is fine and does his best to play all the positions necessary to make a film work but his charm is just not enough save this film less than mediocrity. The rest of the cast, including Jeff Daniels as Berg’s CO and Paul Giamatti and Mark Strong are all hampered by a script that goes nowhere. Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce are wasted and as good s they can be, we do not see that here.
What saves the film from total disaster are the scenes between Berg and Heisenberg. The former is in Europe to determine whether he believes the latter is working on an atomic weapon. If he thinks he is, the physicist must be assassinated. If Berg comes to understand he is not then the outcome would be different. The literal and figurative chess moves between the two men are fascinating to watch and it is too bad that the rest of the film does not rise to meet these scenes. The story begins in flashback with Berg learning that he has orders to assassinate Werner Heisenberg. The real-life inspiration for Berg is a character that is so fascinating that if you start reading about him, you will have a thirst to know more and more. Born in Manhattan but raised in Newark, New Jersey, Berg graduated from Princeton (quite an accomplishment for a young Jewish man in the anti-Semitic Ivy League university system) and went on to play for a number of minor and major league teams, including the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox.
In 1934, Berg made the second of two trips to Japan as part of a baseball players’ delegation and filmed Tokyo harbor with a movie camera. While it seems unclear whether this was actually a precursor to Berg’s espionage activities, the film uses it thusly and the trip sets up some thoughtful conversations between Berg and Japanese delegate Isao Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada) about the likelihood of war between their two countries. Berg was thought to be gay, although the movie never quite confirms that he was; we see him having sex with his girlfriend Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) but holding hands with Kawabata, an intellectual with whom he clearly has a deeper connection.
Unfortunately, the film never gets into Berg’s personality and he comes across as a blank-slate character. Berg’s character remains a closed book, a personality type that’s difficult to portray, because it requires the actor to continually tease the possibility of revelation without giving audiences the answers they look for. Rudd does an excellent job in capturing the character’s casual coldness, starting in an early scene where he tells Estella that he’s traveling to Japan; when she says she’s always wanted to see Japan, he smiles subtly and says, “I’ll take pictures.” As an intellectual who holds intolerant or less-educated people in mild contempt, he is fine. We get the sense that Berg is a restless spirit, possibly driven by a desire to prove himself to a gentile-dominated world by being smarter and more athletic than most of the gentiles who order him around. But except in certain scenes, something seems to be missing from the character and the performance, and it’s hard to tell if this is due to miscasting, unimaginative writing and direction, or something else. The cinematography, production design, costumes and music are all superb, but the direction doesn’t do much more than showcase them.