THE STORY – Major League baseball player Moe Berg lives a double life as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.
THE CAST – Paul Rudd, Sienna Miller, Mark Strong, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels & Guy Pearce
THE TEAM – Ben Lewin (Director) & Robert Rodet (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
By Jacey Aldredge
We’ve all asked ourselves if that quiet neighbor next door might actually be a secret spy, and after the release of Ben Affleck’s Academy Award-winning “Argo,” we’ve probably been wondering which famous face is actually a CIA created mask. In fact, Julia Child, Cary Grant, and author Roald Dahl all assisted the US government with various clandestine assignments during World War II, along with Boston Red Sox catcher, Morris “Moe” Berg. With Ben Lewin’s “The Catcher Was A Spy,” we see Berg’s time as a secret operative. However, while one might think baseball and war make a perfect cinematic match, this particular combination is a strikeout.
In 1938, the nuclear age was born – America has discovered that Nazi Germany is attempting to create the world’s first atomic bomb. To prevent this, the Office of Strategic Services (later known as the CIA) hires professional MLB catcher Moe Berg to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, the scientist behind the bomb’s creation. Berg, a closeted gay man and an Ivy League graduate who knows nine languages but rarely speaks any of them, is the exact type of enigma the US government needs to ensure Nazi Germany fails this mission.
This veil of an enigma is a prevalent feature of “The Catcher Was A Spy” from the first minutes of the film. Grim and rainy scenes of men in shadows are juxtaposed with an earthy palette and warm, vintage tones. Ben Lewin does a stellar job at setting the mood – you’ll quickly feel encompassed with the secrecy and urgency perceived by society during this war-torn decade. If you weren’t aware you were walking into a movie about spies by its title, you’ll surely know after the first two minutes of screentime.
The casting of Paul Rudd as the film’s titular character is also an enigma; it’s a bold move, considering the actor is known mostly for various comedies, including Phoebe’s boyfriend on “Friends,” and more recently, the comedic relief in Marvel’s cinematic universe as Ant-Man. The bold move, for the most part, pays off. Rudd is not phased by his character’s somber outlook; he luxuriates in Berg’s secrets and serious demeanor, and the audience can tell he’s enjoying the break from comedy. However, some of Rudd’s more emotional scenes are pulled thin and come off forced. Tears that fall from his face don’t land in your heart – rather, in the bucket of SFX, they most likely came from. That’s not to say he doesn’t try, though. He has lovely chemistry with his partner, Estella, played by Sienna Miller. Their relationship provides us with many of the film’s best scenes as Berg struggles with his sexuality and Estella tries to give Berg the emotional support he needs. It’s friendship in its purest and messiest form, but it doesn’t save the film from its actual plotline – assassinating Heisenberg.
“The Catcher Was A Spy” flounders when it begins to touch battle sequences and war zones; they’re sloppy scenes with unchoreographed chaos and a loss of focus. In trying to hark to the realities of war, they end up creating an obviously fake battlefield with unrealistic results. It would’ve been in this film’s best interests to focus on its relational strong suits, like Berg’s personal journey towards accepting his sexuality and the ethical conversations he has regarding his role as an assassin.
In fact, the best scene this film has to give comes from a prolonged game of chess, when Berg finally meets Heisenberg (Mark Strong) and they battle each other via mental wit and clarity of thought. For reference, this chess game is played entirely by memory after Heisenberg clears the board at a dinner party.
It’s the mentally stimulating scenes that make this film most enjoyable, but they come few and far between. That’s certainly why Moe and Estella’s moments together are such a joy to watch – they come from a place of love and intellectual stimulation, versus the majority of the film, which fights for a place among the war-themed cinematic major league players it just doesn’t have the skill to match.
Indeed, love isn’t always enough. And in Ben Lewin’s case, his apparent love of history wasn’t enough to save “The Catcher Was A Spy.”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A well-written script begets several scenes full of moral dilemma and intellectual stimulation, some of which will leave you jaw-dropped and contemplative even after the credits roll.
THE BAD – Overall, “The Catcher Was A Spy” misses its own points – in trying to be a historical masterpiece, it ultimately feels shallow and underdeveloped.