Synopsis – A major league baseball player, Moe Berg, lives a double life working for the Office of Strategic Services.
My Take – Hollywood studios have given us a great deal of baseball films, and a lot of excellent spy films, but what if we could mix up the genres for a single film? Based on the book ‘The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg‘ by Nicholas Dawidoff, this film from director Ben Lewin (Please Stand By, The Sessions) has enough going in its favor to be an interesting flick. But despite a high-pedigree cast and decent production values, it wastes a perfectly meaty story on a film that forgot how to be interesting within the first five minutes, as it never a good baseball film nor a good spy film.
It doesn’t snuggle and fit into any specific genre nor does it break the mold with its unusual story, mainly as the writing and directing are flat, and the always likable Paul Rudd is severely miscast in the titular role as the curious, multifaceted Moe Berg. This film is a perfect example of how a stranger than fiction stories about fascinating people can still make one dud of a film.
The story follows Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), an enigmatic Major League Baseball player, who played as a catcher for the Boston Red Sox. But Moe is no ordinary baseball player, as behind his athletic prowess was a secretive, but deeply intellectual mind, who held advanced degrees from Princeton and Columbia and a gifted linguist who mastered twelve languages including Latin, Japanese, Turkish, Sanskrit and Hindi. Living with his doting girlfriend, Estella Huni (Sienna Miller), Moe was widely read and had an uncanny ability to absorb information.
However, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Moe goes to Washington DC to offer his services by handing over a privately shot footage of Tokyo’s shipyards, industrial complexes and military installations, which he made during his time playing exhibition games in Japan. Impressed by his skills, General Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels) recruits him into the O.S.S, the precursor of the C.I.A. After serving some time at a desk job, Moe is given an opportunity to work in the field on a top-secret job with intelligence officer Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) and physicist Samuel Goudsnit (Paul Giamatti), with their target being Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the winner of a 1932 Nobel Prize for his insights on quantum physics, who is reputed to be at work on an atom bomb for the Nazi Germans. Although American scientists are developing their own weapon via the Manhattan Project, they fear they are behind the Nazi effort. It is up to Moe to find out and potentially eliminate the mastermind.
At first glance, this is a fascinating story, full of intrigue and interesting real-life characters played by a distinguished supporting cast. But the film is so directionless and so muddied by Moe’s bloated resume that the payoff never comes. For some reason, director Ben Lewin and writer Robert Rodat, use decades-old conventions of both WWII dramas and biopics to similarly unoriginal effect, from a script riddled with ideas inspired from better films and trappings of a thrown-together for made-for-TV item: overbearing music, flat declarative dialogue, and broad acting from its supporting players. Though the film doesn’t drag from poor pacing, as one might expect, it does suffer from severe structural issues.
This is a film that barely registers over the 90-minute mark, but somehow feels threadbare plot wise, as we get a few introductory scenes setting up Moe as an unassuming every man with some charming quirks, then a lengthy middle section of Moe going from a desk position to actual field espionage, and then a plodding final act that houses the film’s most dramatic sequences. Director Lewin‘s direction drains the film’s plot of its strangeness, rendering every setting and every situation pat fodder for a quasi-prestigious genre film, while trapping the quicksilver Rudd in a bland sheen of morose likability. Moe’s various closeted tendencies are relegated to the stuff of mechanical character motivation and utilized as handy justification for reducing him to a cipher. Surprisingly, the film also fails to deliver much character development for Moe, despite him appearing in most every scene of the film. Plagued by clunky dialogue and an opening half-hour that stumbles in trying to introduce us to a person who doesn’t want people to know that much about him.
We’re told he is over the top smart, but we only get glimpses of it through clichéd shortcuts. He’s reading a foreign newspaper! He answers a question correctly on a quiz show! Curious things about his life are condensed to snippets, and it’s hardly clear whether he’s truly clever or merely cagey for mystique’s sake. Like deserting the film somewhere between subversive and derivative, the filmmakers struggle to show Moe both as an average bum and as a brainy bad ass.
Perhaps the aim was to keep Moe’s character mysterious (as he seemingly wanted to be in his real life), but the lingering questions by the film’s end were more annoying than intriguing. The shoehorned genre elements are also the absolute worst parts here. A genre-standard, spontaneous sex scene between Moe and Estella is shot and edited so awkwardly that it looks like neither of them were sure where the proper equipment was located. That may speak to more questions about Moe’s sexuality, but we don’t get to see the parallel same-sex scene to gain any insight so it leaves the filmmakers looking like amateurs.
Had the film been a more straightforward character study, following that through line would be the right call. But the saggy middle is infuriating, as it shows off a murderer’s row of great supporting actors, while giving them nothing to do but spew exposition and, one supposes, have prominent spots in the trailer to imply they do anything more than move the plot along. Outside of one lengthy and ambitious war sequence director Ben Lewin seems needlessly proud of, it’s a whole lot of killing time until we can see Moe actually doing legit spy shit. Spy narratives often traffic in an existential lack or loss of self—the subtext that gives them their emotional meat. But this film is just tepid in comparison to even the mediocre writing of John le Carré or to a film as robust and playful as director Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge of Spies, let alone classics of the genre.
Agreed, this is an unapologetically minor film, as it doesn’t try to imitate other bigger historical spy films, and it seems comfortable with being small and intimate. But the very few times it tries to exceed its introverted means it almost falls apart. The scene where Moe, Furman and Goudsnit storm a Nazi stronghold in Italy it’s embarrassing to watch with its out-of-place shaky-cam cinematography, non-existent spatial awareness, and CGI blood-spurts. This one could have been an excellent film, as it had every beguiling element needed for a gripping espionage thriller, but sadly falls flat due to its placid direction. Even the basic component parts do not mesh together for a cohesive narrative. It’s a shame, as the story of Morris “Moe” Berg is truly incredible. This adaptation of his life does not live up to or offer any real insight into a fascinating man.
A major part of the problem is Paul Rudd. I am fan of Rudd, and he is usually a usually a thrill to watch on screen, especially when he’s playing a goofball or the straight man to the other goofball. In other films, Rudd’s facial expressions can tell a story on their own, and his snappy comebacks, one-liners, sick burns and even his famous verbal stumbles are simply electric; but here Rudd‘s ability is gravely seems out of place here, mainly as he just doesn’t quite have the dramatic acting chops to convey the intellectual depth of the man in question here. Nothing about him or his style of speaking is at all suggestive of the 1940s, nor has Rudd ever been able to create a suggestion of dark, roiling depths. He may be a lovable Ant-Man but he isn’t much of a Spy. The rest of the cast which includes, Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong, Tom Wilkinson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, and Shea Whigham, also fail to leave much of an impression. Many of these are little more than cameos, and the choppy feel of the film’s flow prevents us from ever really connecting to characters. On the whole, ‘The Catcher Was a Spy‘ is a serious case of missed opportunity which fails to utilize its captivating source material and talented cast satisfactorily.
Directed – Ben Lewin
Rated – R
Run Time – 98 minutes