'The Catcher Was a Spy': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Easily enjoyed if you don't care how true it is.

Paul Rudd plays real-life baseballer Moe Berg in Ben Lewin's WWII adventure.

In 1944, the U.S. government asked a multilingual Jewish baseball player to travel through enemy lines in Italy, make his way to Zurich and assassinate the head of Germany's atomic-bomb program. This isn't a man-on-a-mission sequel to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds — it's a true story. (Sorta. Important asterisks go here.) Ben Lewin's The Catcher Was a Spy casts Paul Rudd as that athlete, Moe Berg, and surrounds him with a surprisingly top-shelf supporting cast. Bad buzz out of its Sundance premiere is puzzling, as this is a very enjoyable middle-of-the-road adventure, especially for moviegoers willing to see just about anything starring Rudd. But perhaps the early naysayers picked up on questionable behind-the-scenes decisions likely to dog the pic if and when it gets a wide release.

First, the good stuff: As depicted in Catcher, Berg is a dashing athlete popularly known as "Professor" for his academic background and facility with many languages; he's popular on quiz shows, where he fares better than he does on the diamond. (The movie downplays Berg's actual rep as a mediocre player, except in a charming bit of self-deprecating dialogue later on.)

Reading several newspapers a day, Berg suspects war is brewing well before it happens. While touring Japan to play exhibition games with a group of American baseball stars, he sneaks off one day to the roof of the tallest building he can find, shooting 16mm film of what will become important military targets. And he's not even on Uncle Sam's payroll yet.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Berg brings this footage to the newly created OSS (forerunner of the CIA), where he is first hired for analytic desk work but eventually convinces chief William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels) to put him in the field. Officials tell Berg about the Manhattan Project, explaining their concern that Germany might develop an atomic bomb before America. Thanks to his linguistic and other abilities, he's a good fit for a delicate job they need done: He is to travel to Italy with a physicist working for the U.S. (Paul Giamatti), interview a scientist there and go on to Zurich to meet Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the man leading German nuclear research. If he has any suspicion that Heisenberg might help Germany make a bomb, Berg is to shoot him on the spot.

The movie shifts gears divertingly a couple of times from here, with some exciting battlefield action (in which Guy Pearce plays the Army man leading the two eggheads through gunfire) eventually giving way to cloak-and-dagger stuff in which Strong must be inscrutable and just smart enough to avoid easy elimination.

So far, so good, in a handsomely designed period film whose cast is more than capable. But in concocting a rousing feature out of Nicholas Dawidoff’s best-selling book of the same name, Lewin and screenwriter Robert Rodat take eyebrow-raising liberties. Not just the usual sort of biopic fudges (like giving no hint of what a sketchy freeloader Berg turned out to be in his post-war years), but the kind that build major thematic elements on extremely shaky factual ground.

The movie has plenty of reason to view Berg as an enigmatic man whose personal history made him both suited for spy work and eager to help America win the war: He was, after all, a Jew — something of an outsider in sports, and a natural enemy of the Third Reich. But the film seizes on scraps of gossip in Dawidoff's book (it amounts to about a page, much of it laughable) to assert that he was a closeted gay man whose relationships with women (like Sienna Miller's Estella Huni, in this story) were, even if genuinely loving, mostly a disguise.

In the film's more than 13,000 words of press notes, the words "gay," "homosexual" and "sexuality" are completely absent, despite this being a central theme explaining the character's gift for keeping secrets. Asked through a publicist if his team had evidence beyond the book to justify this characterization, Lewin said "yes...we have used primary historical sources to inform our depiction of Moe Berg's sexuality." Pressed for details, the director was vague before saying, "We have not tried to depict Moe as gay. He is shown as a man who genuinely loved women, and who may have engaged with other men. We have reflected the innuendo that followed Moe, and not tried to prove anything."

That's a poor reflection of what made it to the screen. Lewin's Moe Berg hangs out in gay bars, beats up a sneaky teammate who hopes to out him and holds hands with a man in an all-male geisha bar after he is asked, "Do you like to hide, Mr. Berg?" When William Donovan, assessing his vulnerability to blackmail, asks nonjudgmentally, "Are you queer?," Moe replies only, "I'm good at keeping secrets."

All this played great for a viewer who believed he was seeing a newly exposed, stranger-than-fiction episode in American history. But after learning that these scenes are extrapolated largely from the homophobic remarks of some 1940s jocks, The Catcher Was a Spy feels both like a disservice to Berg and an insult to historical figures like Alan Turing, who paid a tremendous price for their sexuality after giving everything they had to the war effort. For decades, big-screen biographies glossed over the private lives of even flamboyant gay men. Taking a very private figure and inventing a sex life that moviegoers will assume is true is hardly a step forward.

Production companies: Animus Films, Serena Films, PalmStar Media
Cast: Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson, Shea Whigham, Connie Nielsen, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini
Director: Ben Lewin
Screenwriter: Robert Rodat
Producers: Kevin Frakes, Tatiana Kelly, Buddy Patrick, Jim Young
Executive producers: Vaclav Mottl, Jonathan Gardner, Paul Rudd
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Costume designer: Joan Bergin
Editor: Mark Yoshikawa
Composer: Howard Shore
Casting director: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: UTA

94 minutes