Robert Rodat’s biographical film, The Catcher Was a Spy, is the true story of professional baseball player, Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) and his mission to assassinate German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) before he delivers Adolf Hitler a nuclear weapon.
The movie opens with Berg behind the plate for the Boston Red Sox. At the tail end of his 15-year career, we find this brilliant Princeton graduate who received a B.A. in modern languages, speaks seven languages fluently, and chose to play baseball for the sheer love of the game. As players do they get old and their batting average goes on a decline. Berg is told this would be his last season as an active player.
His final duty as a Red Sox is accompanying the team to pre-WWII Japan for an exhibition game. Being fluent in Japanese, Berg establishes a relationship with a Japanese Officer Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada), who casually speculates that Japan is on the verge of war with the United States. This inspires Berg to secretly photograph Toyko Harbor from the top of his hotel.
“…true story of a professional baseball player and his mission to assassinate a German scientist…”
Rejecting an offer as a coach for the Red Sox, Berg turns over his photos of Tokyo to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), successor to the CIA. It is here that he becomes an agent and is eventually sent on the aforementioned assassination mission.
Berg is now a real-life James Bond. His mission is to sneak into Nazi Germany and investigate Heisenberg’s progress in developing the bomb. He is teamed up with Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), member of the Manhattan Project who hooks him up with Heisenberg’s colleague, Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson). Both men understand the ramifications of Hitler having a nuclear weapon but are hesitant in helping Berg with his mission, especially if Heisenberg is nowhere near constructing the weapon.
Adding to Berg’s complicated life is his sexuality. Berg has a long-time girlfriend in Estella Huni (Sienna Miller). She provides him with loyalty, love, and support, but Berg is unable to make the ultimate commitment. On several occasions, his sexual preference is called into question: in the Red Sox locker room, an overnight encounter with Kawabata, and a point-blank confrontation with the OSS director Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels). Donovan’s response to Berg’s non-answer to the question, “Are you a fag?” is essentially don’t-ask-don’t-tell. Let’s just say his secret turns out better for Berg than it did for Alan Turing.
“…taking a great story and great cast and producing just a good film…”
The Catcher Was a Spy really should be more of an exciting movie than it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. The story is true, Berg is an intriguing person, who’s moral conflict leads to a great deal of drama and tension by the end. Also, how can you lose with a cast that includes Mark Strong, Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Sienna Miller, and Tom Wilkinson? The film feels like a pitcher’s duel than a high scoring hit fest.
I suppose some biographic films are made for posterity sake. While I would never have known about the role Moe Berg played in winning World War II, The Catcher Was a Spy commits the mortal sin of taking a great story and great cast and producing just a good film, never soaring to the heights of any kind of greatness.
The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) Directed by Ben Lewin. Written by Robert Rodat based on the Nicholas Dawidoff novel. Starring Paul Rudd, Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson, Guy Pearce.
6 out of 10 stars