D: Ben Lewin / 95m
Cast: Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Giancarlo Giannini, Hiroyuki Sanada, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham
In the years before the US enters World War II, Morris “Moe” Berg (Rudd) is a catcher for the Boston Red Sox. Regarded as the “strangest man ever to play baseball”, Berg is an average player, but of above average intelligence, being able to speak seven languages fluently, regularly contribute to the radio quiz programme Information, Please, and read and digest up to ten newspapers daily. A man of singular interests but also leading a very private life, Berg pursues a relationship with a woman, Estella (Miller), that he won’t acknowledge publicly, while on a trip to Japan, he takes it on himself to shoot footage of the Tokyo harbour. After Pearl Harbor, Berg uses the same footage to wangle himself a desk job with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Soon though, his expertise in languages lands him a job in the field: to track down the noted physicist Werner Heisenberg (Strong) and determine if his work for the Nazis will give them a nuclear weapon – and if it will, then Berg is to kill him…
Another tale of unsung heroics set during World War II, The Catcher Was a Spy (a title that’s both derivative and clever) is a movie that takes a real life person and spins a mostly true story out of events they took part in, but does so in a way that alerts the viewer very early on that, despite the mission, Berg won’t be put in any danger, so any tension will evaporate before it’s even got up a head of steam. So instead of a movie that should be increasingly tense and dramatic, we have a movie that plays matter-of-factly with the material, and is presented in a pedestrian, if sure-footed manner. Working from an adaptation of the book of the same name by Nicholas Dawidoff, director Ben Lewin and writer Robert Rodat have fashioned a moderately engaging espionage tale that moves elegantly yet far from robustly from scene to scene without providing much in the way of emotional impact. Partly this is due to Berg’s own nature, his muted feelings and intellectual prowess being ostensibly the whole man, and while the movie and Rudd’s performance adhere to Berg’s character, it leaves the viewer in the awkward position of being an observer and not a participant.
With Berg introduced “as is”, and with only the most minimal of character arcs to send him on, the movie soon becomes a wearying succession of exposition scenes, or opportunities to show off Berg’s gift for languages (which Rudd copies with aplomb). The early scenes with Estella show Berg trying to be “normal” but not quite knowing how to, give way to the mission to find Heisenberg, but the movie’s switch from domestic tribulations to wartime emergency – Berg literally has Heisenberg’s life, and possibly the fate of the world in his hands – dovetail at the same pace and with the same lack of urgency. Even a sequence where Berg, accompanied by military man Robert Furman (Pearce) and friendly physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Giamatti), try to thread their way through a town overrun by Germans lacks the necessary sense of imminent peril needed to make it work. Another issue is Andrij Parekh’s humdrum cinematography, which deadens the effect of Luciana Arrighi’s murky yet effective production design. Against all this, Rudd is a good choice for the enigmatic Berg, and the moments where he expresses Berg’s self-doubts, offer a rare glimpse of the man behind the façade. But, sadly, these moments aren’t plentiful enough to offset the flaws that dog the rest of the movie, and which keep it from being far more impressive than it is.
Rating: 5/10 – proficient enough without providing much more than the basics of Berg’s life as a catcher or an OSS man, The Catcher Was a Spy isn’t dull per se, just not as compelling as it could (or should) have been; Rudd aside, a quality cast is left with little to do except recite their lines in a competent manner, and any notions of political or intellectual morality are left undeveloped or overlooked.