Talk about a story made to be depicted by Hollywood. A longtime Major League Baseball player who led a double life as a spy during World War II? Sign me up! The tale of Moe Berg is absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, the cinematic depiction in “The Catcher Was a Spy” is decidedly a mixed bag. There’s some solid below the line work, roles for a ton of character actors, and individual moments that compel. At the same time, a great leading man turn by Paul Rudd is stranded on the bases. The rest of the team just can’t drive him in, to use another baseball metaphor. What a shame too, as the film had the potential to be a home run.
“The Catcher Was a Spy” has enough going in its favor to have been a solid flick. As such, the shortcomings really do feel like a major disappointment. At its best, this is a fascinating character study. At its worst, it feels like a huge error in judgment. When you combine the writer of “Saving Private Ryan” with the director of “The Sessions,” the end result should really be better than this. Frankly, too often the movie is boring. The creative forces have this “truth is stranger than fiction” story to tell, but tell it in such a dry way. Whether you feel like this is just good enough to recommend, falls short, or ends up somewhere in the middle (like yours truly), you can’t help but envision a better version of this flick.
Moe Berg (Rudd) is a veteran catcher in the Majors. At the time of the war, he is playing for the Boston Red Sox, in a relationship with Estella Huni (Sienna Miller), and a closeted homosexual. By and large his teammates either don’t know or don’t care, but there’s clearly some bigotry he’s had to deal with. In that way, he’s lived as a mystery, seeking to hide whenever possible. That, along with the numerous languages he speaks, makes him interesting to the Office of Strategic Services, which would eventually become the CIA. Brought in for training, he’s quickly brought up to speed in order to take on a special mission. OSS is worried about the Germans building an atomic bomb, so it will be up to Berg to find out and potentially eliminate the mastermind.
With Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) his assignment, Berg begins to make moves in the operation. Well, mostly veteran agents and military operatives do that, while he contemplates taking a life. When the mission is about to get underway, he’s paid a visit by William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels), who lays it out for him in a way he’s never quite considered. Not only is he going to potentially murder a scientist, he may also be asked to take his own life as well.
One unimpeachable aspect of the film is Paul Rudd’s performance. If there’s one thing that truly works without question here, it’s him. “The Catcher Was a Spy” would have been a chore without Rudd. This is arguably his best dramatic turn ever, or at least his best since “The Shape of Things.” We know he’s a talented comedy actor, perfectly at home in dramedies, and even a welcome presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, however, he really lends gravitas to a part. He makes the mystery of Berg wholly compelling, arguably in a way that the script itself never does. Rudd elevates the bland material.
The rest of the cast includes the aforementioned Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, and Mark Strong, who each make the most of their few scenes. They’re the supporting players worth taking note of. Strong especially so, as their climactic encounter is a highlight. Other members of the ensemble like Paul Giamatti, Connie Nielsen, Guy Pearce, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shea Whigham, and Tom Wilkinson fail to leave much of an impression. In fact, some of them even sport some dodgy accents. The film is Rudd’s show, through and through.
Director Ben Lewin and screenwriter Robert Rodat have crafted Oscar-friendly work before, making the disappointment here palpable. Sure, maybe this was never going to be an Academy Award contender, but something juicier surely could have been attained by these talents? Lewin is hamstrung by a clearly cheap production, though cinematographer Andrij Parekh makes the most of the conditions. Howard Shore contributes a strong score too, so Lewin had the technical prowess to work with. He just fails to take Rodat’s bland script and breathe life into it. The scribe adapting a book by Nicholas Dawidoff only sporadically can make it feel cinematic, which is a real shame.
This movie is the reason the two and a half star review was invented. “The Catcher Was a Spy” is neither bad enough to pan nor good enough to embrace. It truly is caught in the middle. In some ways, the film is like Berg himself, a journeyman with some talent but not enough to shine. Also, like him, we’ll never fully know what could have been. If you’re a big Rudd fan, you may opt to check this out. Likewise, if the story just compels you enough. It’s nothing to avoid, but definitely keep your expectations in check.