From the backstop to the battlefield — but not beyond
In a Major League career that spanned 15 years, Morris “Moe” Berg (1902-’70) was a competent, if unremarkable baseball player. Yet Berg’s story didn’t really begin until after he left the game when he became an operative for the Office of Secret Services during World War II – a fascinating transition recounted in Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 best-seller “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.”
In the film version of The Catcher Was a Spy (three out of four stars), adapted from Dawidoff’s book by screenwriter Robert Rodat, Paul Rudd deftly balances his rakish screen persona with more dramatic shadings in the pivotal role of Berg, who utilized some of the strategies learned in baseball to contribute to the war effort.
An assiduous, even obsessive, reader and researcher, Berg spoke several languages and devoted as much time to outside pursuits, whatever they would be, as playing baseball. When war breaks out, he personally offers his services to Bill “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Daniels), the head of the OSS, culminating in a perilous assignment to assassinate German physicist and Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who may or may not be colluding with the Nazis.
Called “an unusual man” to his face by Donovan, Berg smiles enigmatically (a Rudd specialty under these circumstances) and doesn’t argue. Nor does the story dispute this observation. Being Jewish, he always felt like an outsider – whether on or off the playing field – and Rodat’s screenplay hints at other secrets in Berg’s carefully organized, and very carefully concealed life.
He has a long-suffering girlfriend in Estella (Sienna Miller), to whom he professes his love and devotion, but she is rapidly (and understandably) wearying of his unexplained – and always solitary – trips abroad. It’s a thankless character in many ways, but Estella’s presence provides some respite from the cloak-and-dagger elements of the plot, as well as providing Berg with a love interest and a possible source of romantic salvation.
The Catcher Was a Spy is an engrossing and entertaining yarn, revisiting a World War II setting for the first time since Saving Private Ryan 20 years ago and directed by Ben Lewin, whose best-known feature was the acclaimed, and very different, comedy/drama The Sessions (2011).
The period detail is well captured in the production design by Luciana Arrighi and the cinematography by Andrij Parekh, which occasionally – and undoubtedly intentionally — echoes the noir-ish ambiance of The Third Man (1948), much as Howard Shore’s moody score occasionally echoes Bernard Herrmann. If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best.
Not surprisingly, The Catcher Was a Spy concentrates on the more cinematic aspects of Berg’s life: Baseball and battle. There was more to his story, but not to this movie. Nevertheless, what’s in this movie works on its own terms and within its limited narrative focus.
The supporting roles are given heft by the caliber of actors playing them, even in smaller roles: Paul Giamatti, Guy Pearce, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shea Whigham and Connie Nielsen. Daniels brings brisk authority to the no-nonsense Donovan, and Strong makes the most of limited onscreen time as Heisenberg, a character perhaps as complex as Berg’s. The scenes they share crackle with an unspoken yet like-minded tension.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.
The Catcher Was a Spy opens June 22 at a/perture cinema.