Morris “Moe” Berg was a Major League Baseball catcher for fifteen seasons. As a player, there was nothing truly remarkable about Berg yet his post-retirement from baseball working for the Office of Strategic Services -a wartime intelligence agency of the United States during World War II- has cemented him as one the most fascinating players in baseball history. Unfortunately, director Ben Lewin’s (Please Stand By) bland adaptation of Nicholas Dawidoff‘s 1994 biography The Catcher was a Spy is a swing and a miss.
Set in 1944, The Catcher was a Spy follows Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) who finds himself in the crosshairs of retirement. Berg is unlike any other ballplayer of his time. He is an intellectual who graduated from both Princeton University and Columbia Law School who finds comfort in being in a library when he is not on the baseball field. Berg is also fluent in seven languages and unlike superstars such a Joe DiMaggio, the catcher was a mystery to the public. This catches the attention of the Office of Strategic Services –the predecessor of the CIA- who hires Berg to join the war effort. After being dissatisfied with desk work, Berg is assigned to a potential assassination mission where he must spy on famed German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) who might be working on the first atomic bomb for Germany.
With many regarding him as “the brainiest guy in baseball” while others referred to the catcher as “the strangest man ever to play”, Berg’s transition from MLB star to World War II spy was a story primed for the big screen. But under the direction of Lewin, Berg’s unbelievable and heroic story is a snooze. This comes to the detriment of Rudd whose efforts are certainly shown yet the A-lister seems to struggle with the having a comfortable grasp on playing the enigma that was Moe Berg. One can even ponder the casting of Rudd, an actor who oozes charisma, to play an individual who could have cared less about being charming.
Supporting Rudd is an incredibly talented ensemble featuring the likes of Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti. While each actor steps up to the plate, each with their own unique skills as a performer, they are are subjected to a low production drama that misses the mark. Writer Robert Rodat, the Oscar nominated screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan, can’t rekindle the same spark that made his 1998 war drama so enthralling.
What makes Rodat’s script so unsatisfying is his blurred focus on Berg’s sexuality. While the film showcases Berg’s love life with girlfriend Estella Huni (Miller), the writer suggests Berg was a closeted homosexual. This is best displayed when the head of the OSS Bill Donovan (Daniels) questions Berg’s sexuality, the catcher responds by saying “I’m good at keeping secrets”. This question of Berg being gay or bisexual is not featured in the biography yet is one of the central focuses of the film. That being said, the moments were we see Berg being vulnerable around the same sex are quite endearing, yet Rodat and Lewin fail to capitalize on the raw emotion Rudd delivers. Instead, viewers are subjected to an immensely frustrating “was he or wasn’t he” trope.
While Moe Berg was a complex individual, The Catcher was a Spy is a lifeless film adaptation of the most interesting period of the catcher’s life. Even the final confrontation between Berg and Heisenberg comes off as anticlimactic as a home team’s all-star hitter striking out in the bottom of the ninth to end the ball game. Throughout its ninety-eight minute runtime, The Catcher was a Spy was able to give audiences a small window into the puzzling human being that was Moe Berg yet those who were looking for a more compelling telling of his story should seek the biography instead.
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