Moe Berg was a Boston Red Sox catcher, Princeton graduate, fluent in seven languages, conversational in four more. Talk about your polymath.
Also a major-league patriot, Berg recorded spy footage of events he observed in Japan and gave it to the U.S. military. As a hobby. Who does that? A guy who’s a spy at heart. The catcher was a spy.
This is normally the kind of role that goes to Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, especially with this heavy-hitter supportive cast acting as backstop. (All baseball analogies apply here.)
But while the megawatt charisma of those two would have tightened up this little movie and added a nice tension, the (mis)casting of Paul Rudd (normally a comedy guy) gives it slightly more of a lived-in, low-tension realism. Which works. It’s serviceable. And yet we do like heightened tension in our cinema to escape our ordinariness, even if it’s based on a true story.
Who Was Moe Berg?
As mentioned, Berg was a 1930s era Red Sox—not a bum, but not a great either. He’s portrayed here as having a sense of humor about his mediocrity. But when playing a pickup game with some Army boys, there’s the cliché of shaking off the glove, wincing, and flapping the painful hand by one of the boys who’s just caught one of Berg’s throws. It’s clear that Berg’s arm is the proverbial world-class cannon.
Which makes it logical that Berg would have been a restless outdoorsman. As he himself explains later in the movie, when trying out for a field assignment (from baseball field to spy field), he hates being cooped up in an office all day. At the outset, the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) liked him riding a desk, because as a Princeton grad, he was excellent at it.
If your calling is spying, you’re going to be a natural enigma. A cipher. Berg’s a mystery to his dog-pack ballplayer teammates, who nickname him “the Professor.” One overly inquisitive, teammate tries to ambush him (interpreting Berg’s aloofness as homosexuality). Berg’s on to him, though; he reverses the ambush and beats the living daylights out of his teammate.
Moe’s got a girl (Sienna Miller), but like a true player (and not in the baseball sense), he’s very skilled at avoiding getting entangled. He dislikes any form of being pinned down, corralled, or labeled. When asked if he’s Jewish, he replies, “Jew-ish.”
Once Berg’s accepted into the OSS, they turn him loose to assess the Nazis’ atomic bomb status. He’s assigned a potential assassination: Should he get the slightest inkling that Germany’s top scientist is up to no nuclear good when he meets him in person, he’s to shoot him on the spot.
It turns out, that German scientist was one of the founders of quantum mechanics—the originator of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—Werner Heisenberg (British actor Mark Strong, displaying flawless, accent-free German). A large (and largely uninteresting) part of the film has to do with getting Berg close to Heisenberg.
The best part of this section is the chess match between the two. Berg challenges Heisenberg, who, in turn, sweeps all the chess pieces to one side of the board and suggests a photographic memory game instead, hoping to utterly intimidate Berg. The look on Heisenberg’s face when he realizes he’s up against an off-the-charts high IQ on par with his own is priceless.
Casting Tells the Story
As mentioned, if you want a low-tension, subdued realism, Rudd’s a good casting choice. However, his inherent boyishness seems to have been sought out because it lends itself to a theme that’s heavily sold throughout the film: that Berg’s penchant for secrecy and spying is validation for strongly implying a closeted homosexuality.
There’s lots of Rudd-as-Berg talking about his ability to keep secrets and having a fondness for hiding. If portraying a chameleon and a human enigma, why cast affable Rudd, who plays lovable doofuses, who says lines like in the following dialogue from “I Love You Man”:
- Sydney (Jason Segel): You get home safe, Pistol.
- Peter (Paul Rudd): You got it, Joben.
- Sydney: I’m sorry, what?
- Peter: Er—nothing.
- Sydney: No, what did you say?
- Peter: Nah, I don’t know. You nicknamed me Pistol, and I just called you—”Joben.” It means nothing. I don’t—I’m drunk, I’m gonna call a cab.
The real Berg looks quite ethnic, with the swarthiness one would associate with the neighborhood around Katz’s Deli on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1930s, but also with the cleft chin so often found in men of action.
Brad Pitt visibly muscles-up for athletic roles, but Rudd’s slight build lends no believability whatsoever to Berg’s having been a world-class catcher.
Which again suggests the casting was intended to make contrived scenes believable, such as the one where, after Berg beats up his teammate, he falls down and gets weepy and distraught at having used violence. This makes no sense whatsoever in conjunction with a man who had no problem being a cold-blooded killer for his country.
A book came out a few years after Laurence Olivier, arguably the world’s greatest stage actor, died, outing him as a closeted homosexual. This kind of conjecture tends to materialize after the person is dead and no longer around to argue the point, much like Mel Gibson’s directorial interpretation in “Braveheart” of King Edward Longshanks’ “gentle son” (also called a “weakling” by his wife) as being fey, and more concerned with the fashionable way to wear one’s sword rather than how to use it.
Moe Berg was a professional ballplayer, lethal spy, and later a womanizer. So this is a particular Moe Berg dish, concocted by director Ben Lewin. And as such, it may require a grain or two of salt.
‘The Catcher Was a Spy’
Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: Paul Rudd, Sienna Miller, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Connie Nielsen
Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Release Date: June 22
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5