THE CATCHER WAS A SPY: Featured

Imagine, if you will, a movie — we can call it THE CATCHER WAS A SPY. In this movie, the first 11 names listed on the call sheet have played lead roles in popular, well-regarded films. Then picture them as all working together to bring to life the story of a Jewish former baseball player. The ball player can speak seven languages, throw a punch, and seduces men and women alike. Now that he has retired from the game, he works for the OSS. If you can envision all that, also know that he is flying to Germany to kill the man helping the Nazis create their own A-bomb. Oh and remember that it really happened.

Imagine all that, and then try to imagine how it could be boring. Wild, right? And yet, here we are.

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY: Dancehall days
Sienna Miller and Paul Rudd dance, dance, dance in a scene from THE CATCHER WAS A SPY. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

The Idea Behind THE CATCHER WAS A SPY

Morris “Moe” Berg (Paul Rudd) has reached the end of his time in the big leagues. Despite never being anything more than average, Berg played 15 years as a catcher and is still fit as a fiddle when he retires.

Known as the Professor for his multiple degrees, his gift for languages, and his penchant for reading multiple newspapers a day, Berg remains something of a puzzle to everyone around him. His girlfriend Estella (Sienna Miller) is frustrated by their relationship. In his role as local celebrity, he often appears on a local quiz show and always declines to mention her.

Teammates wonder about his sexuality. The movie never has him say the words, but Berg is portrayed as at least bi, if not outright gay and using Estella as a cover. It is clear he certainly cares for her, but not to what extent. When one teammate tries to find out for sure — a homophobic rookie — Berg beats him badly enough that the rookie drops the matter quickly and tearfully.

So when World War II arrives, Berg does what any healthy patriotic enigma would. He becomes a spy. After riding a desk for months, Moe feels like he can’t take another day. However, before he can literally run himself out a window, fate intercedes. The US Government needs him to be their spook on a three person team with Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) and Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti). The trio has to save an Italian physicist from a Nazi bullet and then, possibly, put an American bullet in Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong).

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The Writing

As you can tell from everything above, this has the potential to be an incredible story. A queer (in the current sense of the world, not the slur it is used as in the film) Jewish baseball player in the 1920s and 30s alone is interesting. Add in that he is an intellectual who, despite being just average, gets chosen to spread baseball all over the world as part of the All-American team. Then he retires to become a spy, helps take Rome, and manages to get to Heisenberg at the height of World War II? Hot damn!

Alas, the script seems very devoted to being anti-excitement. For one, the structure often proves confusing as to when in time events are taking place. There is a moment early in the film where we are flipping between moments where Berg is wearing nearly the exact same trenchcoat and hat. As he wanders through back alleys in bad parts of town, it is impossible to tell if this is 1930s Berg walking Boston or 1940s Berg heading to shoot Heisenberg.

The dialogue is pretty bland. Any lines that have pop all come from the performers. It isn’t bad or incompetent but, like so much of this movie, it seems to exist just to be utilitarian. I can’t say if screenwriter Robert Rodat was afraid any zing would feel wrong. I can only observe the script feels written that way.

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY: Werner
Mark Strong reminds us of his excellent jawline in a scene from THE CATCHER WAS A SPY. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Casting the Leads of THE CATCHER WAS A SPY

The tragedy of all this is that Rudd is quite good here. He gets to be a little bit rough and nasty in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen him — as when he puts that hurting on his teammate. The way he invites us to care about Berg while remaining such a blank slate is a difficult trick.  Yet, he manages it. We know from on-screen events he has sex with men and women, but we never really learn what either means to him. This can be a deficit sometimes, but for Berg who has lived his whole life hiding in plain sight, it makes sense.

It is a performance that has the courage of its convictions unlike, say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing in THE IMITATION GAME. In that film, Turing was known to be out and gay, no doubt. And yet the movie soft sells it or erases it whenever it can. In THE CATCHER WAS A SPY, Berg’s sexuality — like so much about him — remains unconfirmed. Yet the movie never pretends that it was not a much gossiped about possibility. The only issue I have isn’t with Rudd but rather the script giving us a fairly intense man-woman sex scene but not even a kiss between men.

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Casting the Rest of the THE CATCHER WAS A SPY Call Sheet

As I said earlier, the cast is stacked. And, well, sort of wasted. Jeff Daniels as General William J. Donovan is on good but uncommitted autopilot. Pearce seems weirdly miscast as Furman, depicting the civil engineer as little more than a soldier escort. Giamatti has a good scene with Rudd but otherwise has little to do. Miller’s performance is a victim of always cutting away from her and Rudd just when the emotions start to ramp up.

The only supporting role that felt like it had some meat on the bones was Hiroyuki Sanada as closeted Japanese history professor Kawabata. Berg sleeps with him while with the All-Americans and Sanada watches Rudd’s energy well — the hesitant, longing flirting the era and the country forced them into with a dollop of fatalism about the possibility of war.

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY: General and the Ball Player
Jeff Daniels and Paul Rudd shake on it in a scene from THE CATCHER WAS A SPY. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Filming

A lot of what I said here amounts to calling each aspect of the film “workman-like,” and that extends to the direction too. Ben Lewin never does anything egregious. The movie never feels too fussy or passive. But he never really seems to develop a style either.

This especially becomes apparent during a firefight between Allied and Axis forces near Rome. Everything is there — broken buildings, the already died on the streets, surprise gunfire. Everything but the emotion. All the pieces have been put together, but it lacks energy.

My favorite aspect of the filming — and I know this sounds like damning with faint praise, and perhaps it is — involves the lighting. The exterior night shots frequently utilize this kind of warm but sickly yellow fluorescent glow. It is a visual match for Berg and his ambivalence about being out and possibly caught and discovered. Whether that means discovered as a spy or as a man visiting a gay club, the state of mind — and the lighting — both speak to his distaste for being “known” in any depth.

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That’s a Wrap

I am glad this movie called my attention to a story from history that I did not know. I will certainly track down the book the movie was based on. However, the movie makes a mess of what could have been a truly excellent tale. Or rather, it does not make a mess of it. It plays nearly every aspect of it so safe that the whole thing feels inert on arrival. It’s like it mistook Berg’s cagey-ness for dullness and then blanketed the whole movie in that feeling.

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