Being a baseball fan means that you’re keenly aware of the game’s legends from the past. When World War II broke out, a number of the game’s biggest stars left behind their team uniforms and put on an Army uniform to fight the war on either of its two fronts. This gap in playing time for many greats has baseball fans wondering the unanswerable – what would the career numbers of Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams had looked like had they not lost years of their prime to military service? One baseball name that kind of slipped through the cracks of time was Moe Berg. It’s not hard to see why Berg isn’t exactly a legend of the diamond.
A 15-year veteran of the major leagues, Berg was a backup catcher for most of his career, accumulating a grand total of 441 hits (only 6 of which were home runs) in his journeyman career. Moe Berg was extraordinary but not for his baseball work, and the remarkable true story of a catcher who was conscripted into Office of Strategic Service (OSS) is the subject of the new film The Catcher Was a Spy. Sadly, though, the facts of The Catcher Was a Spy are more remarkable than the film itself, which struggles to create much of an identity in a little over 90 minutes.
After opening with a brief tease of what’s to come, director Ben Lewin starts off his film in Fenway Park as Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) is behind the plate. The light-hitting catcher is facing the twilight of his career, though he’s earned some renown as being the smartest man in baseball – as illustrated in the film when he appears on a radio program. Berg is bachelor but has an ongoing relationship with Estella Huni (Sienna Miller), who yearns for more commitment than he’s able to give. Before his playing days are over, Berg takes a journey to Japan as part of a goodwill mission of baseball All-Stars, the backup catcher is able to capture a sprawling vista of Tokyo, something that would become useful in the coming years.
It’s this setup for The Catcher Was a Spy that suggests you’re in for a rather unimaginative, by-the-numbers historical drama. It’s so generic that not even one of the most likable actors of a generation in Paul Rudd can liven up the leaden dialogue and perfunctory plotting that oozes from Robert Rodat’s screenplay adaptation of Nicholas Dawidoff’s book.
The film does begin to pick up once Moe Berg has joined the OSS after an awkward meeting with “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Daniels), head of America’s intelligence arm. Berg travels to the front lines of the war with Robert Furman (Guy Pierce), an intelligence officer, and Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), an American-Dutch physicist to gather intelligence on Germany’s efforts to develop an atomic bomb, as well as hopefully urge them to defect. Matters are further complicated when it comes to renowned German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who turned down the offer to leave Germany prior to the outbreak of the war. The OSS believed Heisenberg as being at the forefront of the Nazi efforts to develop the A-bomb, and task Berg with discerning Heisenberg’s work on a potential nuclear weapon and, if necessary, assassinate him.
Ben Lewin’s film is buoyed in the later scenes by its great cast that breathes a bit of life into the film’s more rote aspects. There’s a pretty solid battle scene that provides the film with a bit of visceral action. But it’s lacking in tension until the film’s final scenes, where (if you don’t know your history) the lingering question of whether or not Heisenberg is in league with the Nazis and whether or not Berg is going to shoot him down creates a tense dynamic, and Rudd and Strong bring strong poker faces to their duplicitous characters meeting face to face.
And yet by the end of The Catcher Was a Spy I didn’t feel like I’ve left the film with a greater knowledge of the wide web of espionage cast by the Allies in the fight against the Nazis. I didn’t feel like I understood this brilliant man with multiple degrees, who spoke multiple languages, wound up as a mediocre catcher and a brilliant spy. Then The Catcher Was a Spy is content to conclude in the most unimaginative way possible for a historical biopic – title cards informing us of the characters’ lives after the movie ends complete with pictures of the real life subjects. Such a remarkable and unusual story deserves to be told, but it needed to be told in a remarkable and unusual manner. This by-the-numbers biopic won’t suffice.