The major-league baseball catcher Moe Berg had a lengthy if undistinguished career on the diamond: 15 seasons, including five with the Chicago White Sox and five more in the rival hosiery of the Boston team. But it was his off-field hobby that earned him the honor of a 1994 biography by Nicholas Dawidoff and a new film adaptation, both entitled The Catcher Was a Spy.
Tinker, Tailor, Catcher, Spy? Movies telling yarns about the dark arts of espionage are notoriously difficult to pull off, being cerebral and internal, which is why most spy movies are simply action movies with some intel jargon thrown in. That isn’t really an option when dramatizing the case of Berg, though the movie tries to James Bond-ify him with, for instance, a ludicrous early scene in which the veteran, nearly washed-up ballplayer (Paul Rudd) beats a rookie teammate into strawberry jelly because the younger man is snooping on him. In life, unlike in spy movies, you’re not actually entitled to assault someone for observing you in a public place, and the scene has the further fault of showing the elusive, pensive Berg acting completely out of character.
Berg’s life proved well worth a biography, full of incident and intrigue and unanswered questions, but it isn’t obvious that there is a movie in here, given the lack of any overtly cinematic accomplishments on his résumé. A bit desperate for filler, the movie at one point resorts to showing Berg starring in a pickup game of baseball amongst G.I.s. As he was an actual professional baseball player, though, albeit one with a career .243 batting average, it’s hardly surprising that he can knock the hide off a baseball that’s being served up to him by a non-athlete.
Berg’s career as an undercover man began with an act of spying on spec: In 1934, on a goodwill baseball trip to Japan, he cheekily went to the roof of one of the taller buildings in Tokyo and made a film of naval installations that he later passed along to intelligence figures in Washington. The movie makes it appear that Berg did this because of an inherent love of subterfuge: being (possibly) gay in big-time sports, an especially inhospitable environment for homosexuality, gave him a talent for secrecy that grew into a fondness.
So the movie tells us, anyway; it seems more likely that Berg was simply a man of his age — a stalwart patriot eager to do whatever he could for his country. These days, one of these attributes seems to make filmmakers a bit uncomfortable and eager to change the subject, and it isn’t homosexuality.
Nothing about Paul Rudd or his style of speaking is at all suggestive of the 1940s, nor has he ever been able to create a suggestion of dark, roiling depths.
Berg, a Princeton graduate, went on to be recruited by Office of Strategic Services chief Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), who marvels at his skill with languages and sends him to 1944 Italy to try to gather information on the German atomic-bomb program, if any exists, and if necessary to assassinate the enemy’s most prominent physicist, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), during an educational visit to Zurich. Their confrontation provides the movie with its most engaging moments, but since anyone interested in the subject matter is also probably aware that no baseball catcher ever assassinated Heisenberg, it would take a more skillful artist than this film’s director Ben Lewin to drum up genuine suspense here. (Berg decided that it was unnecessary to murder Heisenberg because a conversation with him made him certain that Germany was not close to mastering atomic-bomb technology.)
Berg was such a curious, multifaceted character — he turned down the Presidential Medal of Freedom after the war — that a mordant study of his nature by, say, a filmmaker with the sensibility of the Coen brothers might have been the proper approach. Alas, as directed by Lewin and written by Robert Rodat, the biopic has the feel and the trappings of a thrown-together made-for-TV item: overbearing music, flat declarative dialogue, and surprisingly broad acting from its supporting players (Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Guy Pearce). Worse, Rudd is exactly the wrong man for the part. 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 Secret Agent Man.