Retroactive Review: The Catcher Was a Spy

Moe Berg’s story deserved to be told, but this biopic leaves some to be desired.

It’s almost inconceivable a biopic about the fascinating, mysterious Moe Berg could be boring. Yet that’s exactly what happens with Ben Lewin’s promising but ultimately disappointing The Catcher Was a Spy.

The 2018 film has all the earmarks of success, from a star-studded cast to a fascinating lead character, to World War II espionage and intrigue, but it doesn’t manage to bring the elements together successfully. Based on a biography of the same title by Nicholas Dawidoff, the film dawdles a bit as it sets up its players, promising an intriguing premise and a captivating central character. In the end, though, it fails to deliver.

Berg, described by the venerable Casey Stengel as “the strangest man in baseball,” likely would be a forgotten footnote in the annals of baseball history if not for his secondary career as a spy for the predecessor to the CIA. Born into a Russian-Jewish family, Berg could be considered the old-time baseball equivalent of the Most Interesting Man in the World. He was worldly and intelligent, allegedly spoke twelve languages, and lived a life shrouded in mystery. Berg attended Princeton, where he played shortstop for the baseball team and eventually became team captain. After college, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers—while working toward a law degree at Columbia before choosing to pursue his baseball career.

Berg’s baseball career ended in 1939, and he soon found himself working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after his retirement. One of his missions for the OSS was to pose as a German businessman and assassinate Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist suspected of working on an atomic bomb—a plot that forms the bulk of The Catcher Was a Spy’s narrative.

This all sounds very interesting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately for viewers, the movie manages to squander most of its potential. Paul Rudd tries his damnedest to carry the picture but is undone by a somewhat jumbled narrative and uninspired direction. Cameos by stars like Mark Strong, Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Sienna Miller, Connie Nielsen, and Guy Pearce don’t do much to improve the film, either. Most of the actors just seem miscast or underused, especially in the cases of Miller and Nielsen. Miller seems wasted in a tiny role as Berg’s long-suffering girlfriend, Estella, while Nielsen doesn’t pop up until the final act to serve as somewhat of a plot device.

There are early moments in the film that seem to jump between time periods and locations, confusingly, leaving the viewer wondering when the movie is taking place. It’s not entirely clear until the film puts the date on the screen when exactly these scenes are occurring. The film’s main action sequence—the rescue of an Italian physicist, Edoardo Amaldi, in war-torn Italy—fails to exhilarate and excite; it feels overly familiar, almost paint-by-numbers.

The true disappointment is how shallowly its central character, Berg, is examined. The movie plays around with the idea that Berg is closeted, depicting him violently beating up a baseball teammate who follows him and accuses him of being “queer,” implying a romantic dalliance with a Japanese businessman, and teasing some sort of tension between Berg and Heisenberg, but it doesn’t go into any real depth. Berg’s sexuality seems to be as shrouded in mystery as his covert operations.

We’re never shown what being closeted, essentially living a “double life,” means for the catcher-turned-spy. Berg is an outsider in the world he inhabits, as a closeted Jewish intellectual, but we don’t see what that means to him. We’re given a scene of Berg attending a Zurich synagogue that feels like it was more included to remind us that Berg is Jewish than to explore—in any sort of depth—how his faith affects and informs his actions as a Jewish-American spying in Nazi Germany.

Berg’s faith hardly comes up in the movie outside this scene, and its conspicuous absence feels like another missed opportunity in a movie peppered with them. The scene is meant to be an emotional moment—it leads a tearful Berg to call his girlfriend, Estella—but just ends up feeling disconnected from the movie as a whole.

Like Berg’s sexuality, his Jewishness isn’t addressed in any significant depth. Early in the film, Berg tells another character he’s uncomfortable standing out among his non-Jewish peers. Alas, the movie doesn’t do anything with this topic until the scene in the synagogue. There is no connection drawn between Berg’s reluctance to stand out as a Jewish man among his baseball-playing peers and his emotional visit to the synagogue. There is very little emotional payoff. (In fact, I’d forgotten about that conversation until I rewatched parts of the movie while working on the review).

This lack of narrative resonance is all the more baffling when one considers the scene did not occur in real life. It was added in by the director for the reason that he found it “plausible” Berg would have attended a Kol Nidre service before killing Heisenberg.

These missed opportunities and dropped threads can be traced back to the lack of depth with which the character was explored. Everything about the movie felt like window dressing, where interior thoughts and motivations, yearnings and desires, were left unexplored or touched on only shallowly. There’s so much material to mine with a character like Moe Berg, and yet the film treats it far too superficially for any of it to make a lasting impact on the viewer. While this isn’t a terrible movie and doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong, it’s just painfully boring and plays it way too safe.

It is unfortunate the movie fails to examine how Berg’s life and experiences inform his career as a spy. When “Wild” Bill Donovan asks Berg if he’s queer, Berg simply says “I’m good at keeping secrets,” and this particular thread of the narrative is all but dropped. Is it possible Rudd, well-known for his countless comedic turns and supporting roles, is out of his depth here, in one of his few dramatic efforts? Possibly, but this stance seems unfair, and Rudd certainly isn’t done any favors by the writing.

In fact, the usually likable actor is quite strong in the role, showing a violent, darker side rarely seen in his other films, including the action-packed Marvel series. Rudd manages to bring some depth to a character who seems only sketched out, but it’s not hard to imagine how he truly could have shone with a character more fully developed.

What Is Supposed to Happen at the Winter Meetings?
What, exactly, are we all here for?

The film only really shows glimpses of what it could have been in the final twenty minutes or so, as Berg and his target engage in a tense chess match—literally and figuratively—as well as a noirish nighttime chase through the labyrinthine streets of Switzerland before Berg finally manages to get the physicist alone. In one of the few truly tense, riveting moments of the movie, Berg and Heisenberg are locked in a standoff leading up to the movie’s climax: Will Berg kill Heisenberg, or will he let him go? Does Berg believe Heisenberg when he says he isn’t working on an atomic bomb?

We soon get our answer: Another spy attempts to assassinate Heisenberg while Berg is trying to determine whether or not he believes his target, but the catcher saves the scientist’s life by shooting and killing the other spy. The movie ends rather abruptly a few minutes later, with a postscript of sorts that briefly explains what became of the characters.

It’s really a shame this isn’t a better movie, because Berg’s story should have all the makings of a successful World War II-era thriller and character piece. It just makes it all the more frustrating because you can catch flashes of a better movie beneath the shallow script and sketched-out, insufficiently realized characters. The film manages to generate genuine tension once Berg and Heisenberg cross paths; it just takes far too long to get to that point.

Perhaps that’s a problem the filmmakers were bound to run into in telling an autobiographical story. It’s entirely possible the documentary on Berg, which came out recently, tackles the subject matter with more depth and exploration than director Lewin and writer Robert Rodart do in this film. Unfortunately, this possibility does nothing to help The Catcher Was a Spy cover up its flaws.


You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
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NicklePickers
Member
Member
NicklePickers

In fact, the new documentary, the Spy Behind Home Plate, is excellent and still playing in some theaters. (The director also made the spectacular doc about Hank Greenberg a few years ago.) A nice surprise after I also found the biopic a disappointing clunker.

njguy73
Member
njguy73

I read the book, and it was riveting. How Berg’s parents were torn between wanting to assimilate into American culture and making sure their children didn’t forget where they came from. The tension between Berg and his siblings. And how Berg felt comfortable in Japan, because there, he wasn’t a Jew, just a gaijin.

Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

The issue of Berg’s sexuality was not in the book. There may or may not have been something to it. This attempt to grab contemporary relevance on the cheap is an earmark of bad movies. I’ll stick with the book and maybe see the documentary sometime. Thanks for the review. Berg is a great topic and deserves serious treatment. The popular film medium is usually superficial and disappointing.