More like the spy was a catcher, but still
“You’re an unusual man, Mr. Berg,” says Jeff Daniels to a potential American spy, aging Red Sox catcher Moe Berg. That’s The Catcher Was a Spy’s most telling line. Berg (Paul Rudd) is difficult to define. The movie concerning his World War II service feels like a redacted, top secret report. So little of Berg’s life, both as a pro ball player and enthusiastic spy, ever comes to the surface.
Berg was a genius, a speaker of a dozen or so languages. He spent extensive time studying in libraries, and when called on, chose to enter Switzerland on a mission to assassinate a top German nuclear scientist. He refused to accept a Presidential medal for his service.
This is a story of an isolated man who seemed out of time. He never felt comfortable outside of libraries or a baseball stadium. Moe Berg, as Catcher Was a Spy tells it, was an enigma. That’s challenging to adapt, and the script attempts some flash-forwards to give Berg’s story some energy. That’s marginally successful. Catcher Was a Spy insinuates Berg was gay, too. That has no bearing on overall story, and the script drops this idea once Berg enters enemy territory in the second act.
Berg’s story is a small one. Unlike other other WWII espionage tales, Catcher Was a Spy involves but a few people. There’s only one scene of action as American troops take a town, and later, a minuscule finale relies on basic cinematic tensions. Catcher Was a Spy is constructed too cleanly, too perfect for such a messy and unpredictable job. On a budget, the scenery too feels borrowed, the action made-for-TV frail.
Everything of interest hinges on Berg. He tells most of his own story in expository dialog exchanges; people he meets find his mysterious side alluring, convenient for the script’s needs. Rudd is a capable actor, but never quite locked into this role. It’s as if he’s holding back a sarcastic tirade each time the camera pans to him in close-up. Surrounding Rudd is a grand supporting cast, better than Catcher Was a Spy deserves, if raising the production’s value.
Author Nicholas Dawidoff wrote a book on Berg’s life, of which this film adaptation is based. That book came with the subtitle, The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. It’s an apt descriptor. While the results of Berg’s actions become clear through historical record, there’s no sense of who Berg was or why he distanced himself from social standing. The suggestion of his sexual preference seems a superficial addition; his actions were those of an intellectual. That’s all Catcher Was a Spy can tell. The book seems the better choice.
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The Catcher Was a Spy
The story of the mysterious Moe Berg is adapted from a book in The Catcher Was a Spy, but Berg is still a mystery as the credits roll.