Anatomy of a Movie #5: The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)


I first encountered the improbable life of Moe Berg in the early 1980s, after reading Kaufman, Fitzgerald and Sewell's 1975 book "Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy." As for an "international man of mystery," Berg would put Austin Powers to shame. 

Moe Berg was a mediocre catcher with the Boston Red Sox and other teams in the 1920s and '30s. Casey Stengel once said Berg was "the strangest man ever to play baseball," which meant he was smart and well traveled. The truth is, Berg was mysterious and never revealed much of himself to anyone. Sure, folks knew he was a first-rate scholar with multiple university degrees who spoke seven languages. They certainly did not know, however, that Berg was spy - and an occasionally blundering one, at that.

Director Ben Lewin released "The Catcher Was a Spy" this year to, well, nothing, The movie got very little attention, despite what should be an engaging albeit surface blend of espionage, travel, science, love, the American campaign to capture Italy from the Nazis, and late-'30s baseball at Fenway Park. The baseball scenes were indeed shot at Friendly Fenway.

I knew the Berg story from the 1975 Kaufman book. That work focused on how Berg used his barnstorming-baseball tours of pre-war Japan with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other American all stars to make clandestine contacts and film Tokyo ports. He did this of his own accord; he was not yet employed by the OSS.

"Catcher" focused on Berg's mission to Italy and Switzerland during the war, instead, ultimately to try meet Nazi physicist Werner Heisenberg. He was ordered to assassinate Heisenberg, depending upon what he discovered about his progress in creating a Nazi atomic bomb. Yes, there's certainly Hollywood "dramatic license" throughout the script, but I believe these facts to be largely true.

The movie was based on a 1995 book by Nicholas Dawidoff and IMDB reports that it has only grossed $875,000 worldwide since its Sundance premiere in January. That's likely not even equivalent to the catering budget for one of this year's big bombs "The Hurricane Heist," which is reported to have lost $29 million.

Some critics and viewers dislike "Catcher." It's not James Bond enough for them with its distinct shortage of fast cars and over-the-top villains. In that sense, with Berg spending time in conversations, meetings and libraries, the movie better portrays the actual, painstaking reality of spycraft.

"Catcher" is gorgeously shot by NYU Tisch School product Andrij Parekh. Paul Rudd is serviceable as Berg and Jeff Daniels as OSS head and CIA founder General Wild Bill Donovan. Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Dutch-American physicist Samuel Goudsmit was enjoyable, though his labored Dutch accent served only as a distraction.

It's not a great movie. However, Berg's life was extraordinary and "Catcher" provides a useful vehicle to start exploring it. And stay tuned, the filmmaker Aviva Kempner is expected to release a Moe Berg documentary next year. I loved her 1998 documentary, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."

Image courtesy of Teaser Trailer