In 1994, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote a biography entitled The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. Twenty-four years later, a movie studio decided Moe Berg’s story would be a profitable subject for a movie. And yet, still no movie about his boss Wild Bill Donovan. Less drugs, Hollywood green-lighters. “The Catcher Was a Spy” was directed by Ben Lewin. He was given a big enough budget to film on location in Boston and Prague. He also got a nice cast, headed by Paul Rudd.
In 1936, Moe Berg (Rudd) was a back-up catcher for the Boston Red Sox. He was called “Professor” because he was an intellectual. He is included on a baseball tour of Japan headlined by Babe Ruth. Berg was included not for his mediocre playing ability, but because he spoke Japanese. While in Japan, he used a home movie camera to film Tokyo harbor. When war broke out, Berg visited Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels) of the OSS to show the film. An impressed Donovan hired Berg and gave him a desk job handling the Balkans. When Donovan learns that the Nazis are developing a nuclear bomb, he sends Berg to Italy to investigate a scientist named Heisenberg (Mark Strong). He is accompanied by an OSS agent (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (Paul Giamatti). Berg’s mission is to assassinate Heisenberg.
“The Catcher Was a Spy” has the feel of a “movie of the week”. The cast gives me the impression the producers had bigger goals. The stars are way out of this movie’s league. Dawidoff manages to get them to give sincere performances to match the movie. Rudd is solid in a movie that lacks any humor. It’s not heavy lifting as Berg is a strange dude. But not interesting strange. More like nerd strange. The movie throws in a gay subplot (I already mention no humor, so you can figure out what I mean here). This sort of thing is required for a 21st Century biopic. The subplot goes nowhere and adds no tension. But then, there is little tension provided by the rest of the plot. For a spy movie, there is little cloak and dagger or edge of your seat suspense. His mission is easy and his life is never in danger. Other than a nifty combat scene where the trio has to follow an American unit through an Italian city that is being taken house to house. When you are making a lame spy movie, don’t throw in a good combat scene to contrast with.
One positive thing I can say about the movie is it is fairly accurate. As you will see below, it uses the basics of Berg’s life as the structure for the story. Clearly it enhances the entertainment value like every biopic. I seriously doubt he was in firefight. As usual, the final act goes off the rails the most. Berg is a fascinating historical figure and deserved a movie, but so do a lot of more deserving individuals. I mentioned his boss William Donovan as an example. This movie does not make a strong case for Berg receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (The biography below proves he deserved it.) But my main beef with the movie is – who the hell green-lit this movie? It made less than $1 million at the box office and that sounds about right.
GRADE = C-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: For the very few people who saw this movie (and the fewer who care), here is the low-down on Moe Berg. He graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School. He spoke several languages and read ten newspapers a day. He became a professional baseball player and played fifteen seasons as a back-up catcher. He was described as the “brainiest guy in baseball”. He did appear on a radio quiz show called “Information, Please” which was great publicity for major league baseball. He quit when the moderator began to ask him personal questions. Casey Stengel said he was “the strangest man ever to play baseball”. Was this because he was a closet homosexual? The movie assumes that with no proof. Twenty years ago, a movie would have avoided besmirching a man’s reputation, but I guess we have arrived at the point where depicting an historical figure as gay is a compliment. I am for gay rights, but I wonder what Berg would have felt about the movie. Considering his love of privacy, I think he might have sued. I doubt he had a girlfriend like in the movie. I really doubt he called her long distance from Zurich in the middle of the war. He did go on a baseball tour of Japan with Babe Ruth. (This was actually before he joined the Red Sox.) While in Japan, he did surreptitiously film Tokyo harbor. In his five years with the Red Sox, he played in less than 30 per year. When he retired in 1939, he coached for two years. After Pearl Harbor, he went to work for Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and showed them his film. It may have been part of the preparation for the Doolittle Raid. In August, 1943, he switched to the OSS where Donovan put him to work on the Balkans Desk. He was paradropped into Yugoslavia to investigate the partisan groups to determine which the OSS should support. He recommended Tito. The movie covers Operation AZUSA. Berg’s mission was to interview Italian scientists to find out how close the Germans were to an atomic bomb. I would be shocked to find that he was told about the Manhattan Project by Donovan. (The movie would have us believe Berg knew about the project while the Vice President didn’t.) When it was learned that Heisenberg was scheduled to give a lecture in Zurich, the OSS sent Berg to attend and assess whether Heisenberg was close to developing a bomb. If Berg determined Heisenberg was a threat, he was to assassinate him. Berg decided the Germans were not close to a nuclear bomb and did not make an attempt on Heisenberg’s life. I doubt there was a confrontation as shown in the movie. Heisenberg was captured after the war and interrogated. The Anglo-Americans determined that he was not attempting to create a superbomb. He spent the rest of his life in scientific endeavors. Berg left the OSS and worked part-time for the C.I.A., but by the mid-50s he was unemployed and stayed that way for the rest of his life. He lived with siblings until his death in 1972. His baseball card is on display at the C.I.A.