‘The Catcher Was a Spy’ Review: Secret-Agent Sports Hero Biopic Strikes Out
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say – and the path of good intentions, we’d wager, is liberally bricked with dull, earnest important-man biopics. An adaptation of Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 book of the same name, The Catcher Was a Spy rewinds back to the mid-1930s, when baseball player Moses “Moe” Berg (Paul Rudd) was on the Boston Red Sox roster and keeping Fenway fans cheering on their feet. He gets a little guff for being a Jew (per Berg, he modestly characterizes himself as “Jew-ish” with a shrug – the implied hyphen is key), and a lot of grief due to teammate suspicions of being “queer.” Berg did have a girlfriend, Estella Huni (Sienna Miller), though he’s in no hurry to marry her. His nickname is “Professor,” thanks to academic detours through Princeton, Columbia and the Sorbonne; he goes on quiz shows and speaks close to 10 languages fluently or near-fluently, including Japanese.
That last part is what earns him a spot on an All-Star team next to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, which heads over the Land of the Rising Sun for an exhibition game. While he’s there, Berg gets a tip that war between the nations may be brewing, and he happens to film some home movies of Japanese shipping ports. After Pearl Harbor happens, the catcher is summoned to meet William “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff “Mild Jeff” Daniels), the head of the Office Strategic Services. He’s seen the films. This intelligence-agency godhead is impressed by the citizen’s initiative, his smarts and his ability to keep a secret. He recruits Berg for a special mission: find a German scientist named Heisenberg. The man may be working on a bomb that could tilt the conflict in the Axis’ favor.
So with the help of Manhattan Project bigwig Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) and Dutch-American physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti, gamely wrestling with an accent and coming remarkably close to winning), the ball player comes in from the cold and heads to Europe. Once there, they’ll dodge bullets and track down other eggheads [yawn], in the hopes that they can get close enough to the German and [yaawwn] either convert him or kill him. When Berg and Heisenberg, played by Mark Strong, finally meet in Zurich, there’s a lot of dinner-party staredowns, and some [yaaaawwwwn] tortured chess metaphors, plus a few philosophical discussions about the nature … the nature of …
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Given the mix of sports and spycraft, combat and class issues, racism and homophobia and Nazis and patriotism and a historically fraught moment in which millions of lives rest in the hands of man who throws a mean fastball, this based-on-true-story thriller should have been a home run. (Sorry.) Instead, director Ben Lewin, a journeyman who’s done everything from Australian TV to the 2012 Sundance drama The Sessions, simply plods from one scene to the next, never finding the spark to light a fire beneath the film. Berg led two lives, and the movie doesn’t do justice to either – the attempts to play up the ships-in-the-night romance with Estella feels stillborn, the sense of overcoming social prejudices register as half-finished PSAs and the espionage aspects feel inert and frustratingly slack. A sequence involving a firefight in a bombed out village flatlines before your very eyes. Even when Rudd and Strong finally do get the chance to stage a cat-and-mouse game between the two intellectuals, you get the sneaking suspicion that the cat has been sedated and the mouse is preoccupied with other, far more pressing matters.
Which is a shame, given that Berg’s twisting, turning American-hero tale cries out for a screen adaptation full of suspense and sacrifice and outfield worship. Not to mention that Catcher is blessed with impeccable period production design and a beautifully tony WWII-era look; cinematographer Andrij Parekh knows how to lay on the slate grays and drab olive greens, and gives the upper-crust scenes a deco aristocratic lushness. You can tell Rudd is trying to stretch out here, taking on a heroic role that doesn’t require him to shrink to ant-size and a straight dramatic part that’s the opposite of someone who’d sing the praises of Sex Panther cologne. (Not to mention the actor is a natural fit for being an overcoat-wearing, old-timey matinee idol of the 1940s – squint and you’d swear you were watching Alan Ladd.)
None of that matters, however, if you can’t make use of your pretty-to-gritty visuals and your dashing leading man has nothing to do. Everything just sort of gradually inches along, before finally getting around to the inevitable end-credit IRL photo album and de facto disclaimers (“Berg remained a bachelor, going between ballfields and libraries”). The swing-and-a-miss–es keep on coming. Boring is the last word you should use for a sports-hero-turned-spy story like this; it’s the only one that comes to mind after you’ve seen the film.