Film Review: The Catcher Was a Spy

Not too believably, Paul Rudd brandishes a “No More Mr. Nice Guy” sign as a World War II spy who still gets away with all of his manifold secrets intact. If this neutered biopic proves anything, it’s that an enigma doesn’t photograph.
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Newsweek noted the passing of Morris “Moe” Berg in May 1972 with the headline “3rd String Catcher; 1st String Spy.” Which was all that could be safely said for a man of mystery who functioned in many worlds, always an outsider looking in.

A brainy type who graduated from Princeton with honors and advanced multilingual skills, who even guested on radio quiz shows, Berg preferred to spend his time and talent on a mediocre baseball career, catching for the Boston Red Sox. When that dried up and the step down to coaching materialized, he took up spying.

His cloak-and-dagger calling card was a slow 16mm pan of Tokyo’s harbor and Navy shipyards that he had taken from the rooftop of a hospital while on a goodwill baseball exhibition tour of Japan. Such footage, after Pearl Harbor, was a slam-dunk into the Office of Strategic Services. His OCC assignment: to assess and, if necessary, assassinate physicist Werner Heisenberg, who had won the 1932 Nobel Prize for pioneering quantum physics but was in Germany in 1944 in a race with the Allied Forces’ Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Whether Heisenberg was really a man of peace deliberately dragging his foot for Hitler or a devoted, rabid Nazi was something Berg determined after they’d met and sparred with verbal chess games.

The Catcher Was a Spy begins with these two locking wary eyes on each other for the first time, then rewinds eight years to Berg’s fading Red Sox career. The game plan seems to be to make the film as impenetrable as possible so no one will notice it is actually flatlining over pretty familiar turf. Mark Yoshikawa’s editing twists the narrative (from Nicholas Dawidoff’s acclaimed 1994 bestseller) into a pretzel.

A far and distant cry from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Bridge of Spies, the film plainly is pleading for admission to that elite club, and if pedigree counted more than presentation, it might have made it. Both the director and the screenwriter come from loftier perches—Ben Lewin from helming The Sessions and Robert Rodat from scripting Saving Private Ryan—but they’re hell-bent on preserving Berg’s mystery.

One particularly annoying case-in-point is the character’s ambiguous sexuality. He pulverizes a young rookie for trying to out him and then goes home to make fierce love to his girlfriend, whom he otherwise keeps at arm’s length. When his OCC boss asks him, “Are you queer?” point-blank, he replies, “I’m good at keeping secrets.”

That seems to be the movie’s mantra, and casting Paul Rudd as Moe Berg counts as more camouflage. Rudd’s easy-to-read relatability has always made him a favorite with audiences—and rightly so—but here that quality seems to be in a full-out argument with Berg’s chameleon-like demeanor. Rudd just can’t smile insincerely.

And if there’s another Paul who could look more out of place in raging combat, it’s Giamatti, here sporting specs and a Dutch-Jewish accent and coming off like a four-eyed fuddy-duddy, garnering unneeded laughs. More like it is Guy Pearce’s right-out-of-the-John-Wayne-manual military man leading these softies through battle.

Mark Strong, as Berg’s intellectual match and target, delivers—well, Strongly in a crucial cameo, while Sienna Miller brings more to the role of Berg’s girlfriend than the role brings to her. Also making the most of their bits are Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Connie Nielsen and, especially, Hiroyuki Sanada.

The most consistently convincing aspect of The Catcher Was a Spy is Andrij Parekh’s attractive, atmospheric photography of locations ranging from Prague (a plausible Zurich, it turns out) to White Plains to Boston’s Fenway Park. But the spy of the title remains blurry.

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