Amazing Story of Jewish Baseball Player and Spy Is Only an Average Movie
The story of a Jewish baseball player risking his life to potentially assassinate the Nazis’ top physicist seems tailor-made for a movie. But “The Catcher Was A Spy” needs tighter fabric to be a great film.
The movie tells the unbelievably true tale of Morris (Moe) Berg, a Princeton graduate who played for a number of teams, including the Boston Red Sox. He was later dispatched to Zurich to kill noted German scientist Werner Heisenberg if Berg determined that Heisenberg was close to building a nuclear weapon for the Nazis to use.
Based on the book of the same name by Nicholas Dawidoff, Berg comes across as an enigma. He has a girlfriend, but is rumored to be gay. He isn’t a great baseball player, but somehow manages to play for 15 seasons. He is an intellectual and speaks several languages, but has a tough-looking face.
Starring in the title role is Paul Rudd, a fine actor who is seemingly too good-looking for the part. But Rudd carries the film as much as he can. Although his throw to second base when a runner is stealing looks weak, he seems like a man who can get things done, although the moments of vulnerability are too few here.
The main problem with the film is poor pacing and the lack of a sense of danger. Other than a brief wartime scene where some bullets fly, everything feels too safe. Also, we should see some inner conflict. This is a man who must be grappling with a lot, yet we barely see him sweat. In a scene where he is handed a poison capsule to take if he is captured, the camera pans away from Berg’s face and we get a shot of him from the back while he is sitting down. This is a curious choice.
A scene where Berg prays in a synagogue for a high-holiday service in Zurich is also totally out of place and not based on any fact.
Mark Strong is miscast as Heisenberg. He is a great villain, but doesn’t look like much of a scientist. Jeff Daniels does what he can as a government agent managing Berg, but Daniels has more humor to offer than the script allows. The film is worth watching for Rudd’s performance, but had it gone a bit darker, Rudd’s acting chops could have come out more clearly. As scientist Samuel Godsmit, a man who isn’t sure if his parents have been murdered by the Nazis, Paul Giamatti brings verve and even a few laughs, as well as a strange accent. Any time he’s on screen, it’s great to watch.
But the movie is too superficial. For example, we could stand to see moments where Berg is caught shooting video in Japan after exhibition baseball games to give to the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA (these moments are discussed in the book). Berg was ultimately able to get some of the tape through. And in the end, the climactic scene featuring Rudd and Strong comes off as stale, but that is more due to the writing than the acting.
Asked if he is gay, Berg responds that he is good at hiding things. Asked if he is a Jew, he says that he is Jew-ish. The line isn’t exactly a knockout. Neither is the film. But if you’re a fan of Rudd or the absurdity of this historical truth, it’s worth a look — even though the material and the cast are far better than the actual result.