If you ask my roommate to review a film, she tends to employ as many short descriptive details as she can, sort of like Bill Hader’s Stefon on Saturday Night Live: “This film has it all: Murder. Mystery. Action. Intrigue. Drama. Romance.”
Once, she used that phrasing to describe Zootopia. (She surprisingly wasn’t wrong.)
And if she were to see The Catcher Was a Spy, based on a biography by Nicholas Dawidoff of the same title, she’d probably use that phrasing again.
The latest release by director Ben Lewin (Please Stand By) stars Paul Rudd in a decidedly un-Paul Rudd role. He stretches his acting chops beyond his typical comedic antics and the wings of Ant-Man to play Morris “Moe” Berg, the real-life Jewish baseball catcher who played and coached for such teams as the Boston Red Sox and who was also a spy during World War II.
Former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once called Berg “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”
Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Chairman Stephen Frishberg hasn’t seen the film yet, but plans to.
“What Moe Berg symbolizes to me is the old cliche, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’” he said. “One’s initial reaction to him being such a good baseball player was ‘Is he really Jewish?’ but now we realize that the more pertinent question should have been, ‘Was he really a spy?’
“So much for stereotyping!”
A simple Google search for a biography of Berg quickly shows you won’t find a condensed version, and you can quickly fall down a rabbit hole of theories and questions — namely, who was he really?
Known for his brains as well as his baseball prowess (though just a mediocre player), Berg grew up in Newark, N.J., and attended Princeton University, where he played the sport in addition to studying modern languages. He could speak at least seven perfectly, as well as a few more conversationally, including Japanese, which came in handy when he was picked to be part of the contingent that went to Tokyo in 1932 for a series of baseball exhibitions.
He played against a Japanese all-star team along with members of “Murderer’s Row,” including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. During his visit, he talked his way to the top of one of Tokyo’s tallest buildings and used a movie camera to film the capital city’s shipyards, per a report from the CIA. Reportedly, the United States used Berg’s footage to plan bombing raids over Tokyo in World War II.
His post-baseball career took an unusual turn. In the midst of World War II, he started to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency that became the CIA’s predecessor.
One of his tasks with the OSS was to find and kill German scientist Werner Heisenberg, who was rumored to be helping the Nazis build nuclear weapons, including a fission bomb.
This is where Catcher first opens. All this to say, this doesn’t seem like a typical character for Rudd, who is Jewish.
The film has garnered mixed reviews since its June 22 theatrical release, following showings at the Sundance Film Festival.
With a plotline relying on a literal ticking time bomb, the pacing of Catcher feels a little less urgent than you would expect, which was either purposeful to build tension or just an oversight. Berg’s baseball life sort of becomes forgotten as the wartime plot picks up and there are so many other moving parts to the film. A nice moment in which Berg joins some soldiers for a quick game nods to his past, as the young men realize they’re playing with Moe Berg. One tells him he used to see Berg at Fenway Park and he was really good. “Me? Good? When?” Berg quips.
But one cannot deny that the subject matter is interesting.
Director Lewin hadn’t heard of Berg, who it is also said was likely gay despite being in a longtime relationship with a woman (the film nods to this as well), before getting the movie script. As the son of Holocaust survivors, the story’s World War II elements hit home.
“I read the book and, you know, became sort of sucked into the Moe Berg cult if you like,” Lewin said in an interview with The Tracking Board. “And there are many people out there trying to, ‘Well, who was this Moe Berg character?’ When it was first announced in the trades, a rabbi emailed me, who was a self-proclaimed scholar of Moe Berg, and said, ‘Which Moe Berg are you going to make the movie about?’”
On casting Rudd, Lewin said he had the sense the actor was looking for something different from “that kind of lovable, goofy guy thing into something that was gonna test him a bit,” he said. “The enigma of this character really challenged him.”
The Observer called the film itself “a challenging story less riveting than it should be,” but noted that Rudd “is very, very good in what is considerably the best role of his career.”
Making the film proved challenging as there were many stories within the story, Lewin noted — it’s a spy movie and also a thriller as well as a baseball movie.
“It was a real challenge in terms of defining the story you’re telling, and on the one hand there was this fascination with finding out ‘Who the hell is this Moe Berg character?’ And on the other hand, real necessity to have a narrative,” he said. “Not just to figure out who he was, but to see his part in the story that this was.”
Also featuring a stellar supporting cast (Sienna Miller, Paul Giamatti, to name a few), the film aims to give insight into who Berg really was.
“I guess I was trying to give some kind of concertina’d representation of the many lives that Moe Berg led,” Lewin said.
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