SUNDANCE FILM REVIEW: Paul Rudd Stars In Fascinating Story About Fascinating Man, THE CATCHER WAS A SPY
You have likely heard me repeat often the mantra that not every story needs to be given the cinematic treatment. But the purposefully muted, understated life of the irreducible personage known as Moe Berg, is sufficiently intriguing to warrant the silver screen. In the Sundance movie, The Catcher Was a Spy, it is no one less than boy-next-door Paul Rudd who does the honors.
Berg was a Major League catcher from 1923 through the 1930s. His last appearance on a field was for the Boston Red Sox on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland and began World War II. As The Catcher Was a Spy opens, we see Berg in 1936, resisting his pitcher’s attempt to brush off the signs. An experienced and intelligent man, with a keen awareness of his surroundings, his environment is completely within his control. In fact, not only has Berg succeeded on the diamond, he holds a law degree from Columbia Law School and fluently speaks a half dozen languages, with a working understanding of another six across the continents. He is engaged, but never married, to the beautiful Estella (Sienna Miller), but there are gossips and rumors about his sexuality. Ever enigmatic, Berg and the film that portrays him do not quite give a satisfactory answer.
After this linear setup, Berg enlists in the burgeoning Office of Strategic Services Secret Intelligence branch (the predecessor to the CIA), where his brains and language skills make him the perfect envoy for a secret mission to assassinate Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) the chief Nazi physicist heading their own version of the Manhattan Project.
The Catcher Was a Spy is interesting on two levels. The first, the historical field, is supported by Guy Pearce as Robert Furman, the irascible commander in charge on the ground of the dangerous spy mission, Paul Giamatti (everywhere at Sundance) as the absconded Dutch-Jewish physicist helping the Americans, and Jeff Daniels as Bill Donovan, the eventually founder of the CIA and lead architect of the Heisenberg kill mission on which Berg was cast. The second is the personal level, the one that analyzes Berg’s quiet demeanor, his calculating gait that knows it all but does not reveal it. Though he appears to be at times conflicted, he is always in control, a fascinating study of a man who was successful on so many different planes.
The long explanation and setup necessary to explain this movie may perhaps be its downfall. It is a biographical movie where the tone shifts from Major League to The Good Shepherd to James Bond. It is hard to keep track of just exactly what type of movie you are seeing, other than a biopic that bounces around like a wayward baseball. By the time you get to Tom Wilkinson as a Swiss citizen central to the machinations of Berg and his crew of patriots, you have seen a movie about several different types of Moe Bergs.
But The Catcher Was a Spy remains a decent thriller for World War II and even baseball fans, a story that has clearly not seen the light of day in a while but that focuses on an undeniably interesting personage that could have played a pivotal role in history. Perhaps the fact that his actions result not as transcendental as you would like will also not help your esteem of the film, but hopefully by then you will be taken in by Rudd’s piercing gaze, and by the muted sensuality of his aging character.
Few things are as American as the movies, of course, as American as baseball. We also pride ourselves, historically speaking, of our feats during that Second World War, and espionage really was our original conception in those times. The Catcher Was a Spy is thus a movie about quintessential American values at a pivotal time in history. It touches upon too many of them, never quite finding what it means to say about them, other than to tell you that it does in fact have something it wants to say.
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