'The Spy Behind Home Plate': Film Review
Baseballer Moe Berg, the subject of last year's feature 'The Catcher Was a Spy,' gets the doc treatment from Aviva Kempner.
A just-the-facts documentary on a man who inspired a liberties-taking feature last year, Aviva Kempner's The Spy Behind Home Plate introduces Moe Berg, the Jewish baseball player who spoke many languages, was smart enough to be a quiz-show star — and who also happened to be a spy fighting Nazis during WWII. Directed by Aviva Kempner, who made 1998's well-liked The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and specializes in celebrating underexposed Jewish historical figures, it's much more dry than one might expect, demonstrating the truth of something interviewees suggest more than once: As intriguing a person as Berg was, it was not easy to know him.
The son of immigrants who had no use for their ancestors' religion but didn't hide their heritage, Berg did fib a bit when he wanted to play baseball as a kid: He used a fake name so he could play on a team sponsored by a Christian church. He became a star player in high school and at Princeton under his real name; when Princetonians invited him to join an elite dining club, he refused because membership was denied to other Jews.
Berg biographer Nicholas Dawidoff joins a long string of historians, teammates and journalists in painting a portrait of this very unusual character: Already an oddity as a Jew playing pro ball, he became a favorite of sportswriters as an erudite, multilingual news junkie they dubbed "Professor." Deeply curious about the world, he traveled abroad in the off season (when not going to law school) and raved about the "wine, women and song" he enjoyed during a stint in Paris.
The film leans conspicuously on the "women" part of that equation, quoting several people who describe Berg as a womanizer, or who think meeting women was the reason he attended the swanky embassy parties that would lead him into espionage. Kempner seems quietly intent on countering last year's The Catcher Was a Spy, starring Paul Rudd as Berg, in which director Ben Lewin and screenwriter Robert Rodat strongly suggest Berg was gay or bisexual, and make this a major theme of the film. Home Plate doesn't merely see no evidence for this theory; it doesn't even find the claim worth mentioning.
Baseball took Berg to Japan and the culture immediately fascinated him. On two trips, he stayed behind after his famous teammates went home; on one in 1934, he snuck up to the roof of a tall Tokyo hospital and shot movie footage of the buildings surrounding it. Berg buffs love this story, seeing it as proof of cultural insight that foresaw World War II and made Berg an ideal spy. Journalist Stan Bernard seems less impressed when he says that "allegedly" this footage was "supposed to have been used" for the U.S.' bombing raid on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack. (Kempner doesn't follow up on any suspicions about the story.)
Home Plate takes an hour to get to the spy stuff, and as its talking heads now discuss the birth of the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) and various anti-war efforts, Berg sometimes gets lost amid the scene-setting. (Tangents about the war's impact on Babe Ruth and Marlene Dietrich, for example, play like filler.) The doc gives only 20 or so minutes to the most dramatic episode in Berg's life, in which he tracked down Italian physicists in hiding; interviewed them about possible atomic-bomb projects; and was sent to observe famed scientist Werner Heisenberg, with orders to kill him on the spot if he thought he was helping the Nazis develop a nuke.
That's a narrative that played better in last year's feature, however problematic that film was. In real life, Berg was known as a secret keeper, whose showy gesture of putting one finger to his lips loudly hinted at the exciting stories he wasn't allowed to tell. Watching two very different films try to make the most of the incomplete evidence he left behind, one wonders if maybe Berg hoped people would invent stories about him that were more interesting than the truth.
Production company: Ciesla Foundation
Distributor: mTuckman Media
Director/screenwriter/producer: Aviva Kempner
Executive producers: William Levine
Editor: Barbara Ballow
Composer: John Keltonic