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Paul Rudd is fantastic as the enigmatic Moe Berg, a real life footnote from history in the serviceable thriller The Catcher Was A Spy. This is the type of film that causes you to run to Wikipedia the moment it ends to learn just how much of it is true. As is always the case, this is a bad idea. Nevertheless, this movie, which is all plot and very little drama, remains engaging because the story is so neat.
But considering this adaptation of Nicholas Dawidoff’s bestselling book took almost 14 years to get made, and with who knows how many different directors, it is a reminder that every weird true tale doesn’t always lend itself to a film.
When we first meet Berg he’s a catcher for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1930s. He’s insightful about the game, but a mediocre player. The coach wants him to retire and begin a coaching career himself, but Berg’s still having fun. He remains mysterious to his other players, seen reading newspapers in foreign languages and rarely socializing. He’s nicknamed the Professor and appears on quiz shows, but he takes his privacy seriously, to the point of attacking a rookie who follows him home. (The rookie suspects he is gay, and wants to catch him.)
Berg lives with his girlfriend, whom he keeps at arm’s length, and we get a first glimpse at his desire to help his county in unorthodox ways during a goodwill baseball tour of Japan. Using a small film camera, he climbs to the roof of a hospital to shoot images of a nearby airfield. The two nations are not at war yet, he just has a hunch. After Pearl Harbor he brings this footage to the OSS and ends up getting a job.
The Catcher Was A Spy is framed by Berg’s most notable assignment, part of the Alsos Mission to assess the Nazis’ progress in developing an atomic bomb. Berg is to sniff out their lead scientist and, if he deems it necessary, assassinate him.
As luck would have it, that scientist was Werner Heisenberg, he of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In a wonderful alignment of an individual and their most famous achievement, it remains impossible to know what Heisenberg (played in this film by Mark Strong) was really up to.
The central thrust is getting Berg to Heisenberg, and that involves a little bit of action in Italy to track down Heisenberg’s contacts as the bullets are still flying. Here, director Ben Lewin stages some of the blandest and most awkward action scenes you’ve seen in quite a while. It’s amusing that Paul Giamatti (playing the Dutch-Jewish physicist Samuel Goldsmit, who escaped to the United States and aided in Alsos) is clutching his helmet and whimpering, but there’s an awful lot of people just standing around waiting to get shot.
Ben Lewin’s best work is the John Hawkes/Helen Hunt sex surrogate drama The Sessions, but his most recent work is Please Stand By, starring Dakota Fanning as an autistic Star Trek fan writing her own screenplay; a candidate for worst film of the year. He shoots in a perfunctory fashion – other than making sure the evening streets look wet, there isn’t much visual splendor. But for the plot alone the movie does hold one’s attention. What’s more, the specificity of this odd character is, I’m sure of it, one that will linger with me for a long while.
All praise goes to Rudd, whose innate agreeableness immediately gets you on “his side,” even as his quirky behavior goes unexplained. He’d make his life so much easier if he’d just open up a bit, but there’s a block he’s suffering from, an outsider’s uncomfortableness that’s rooted in being Jewish yet attending universities like Princeton and getting involved in professional sports. When his OSS boss (Jeff Daniels) wants to wish him luck on a dangerous mission, he realizes he doesn’t know anything about the guy.
It is to Rudd’s great credit that, while knowing only a smidge more than the other characters, we feel as if we understand him, and certainly root for him. The film isn’t a home run, but with Rudd in the lead in something so out of the ordinary for him, it’s fair to call a ground rule double.
Source: The Guardian
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