The key to watching and enjoying Ben Lewin’s The Catcher Was a Spy—a dramatization of Nicholas Dawidoff’s non-fiction biography of the same name on Moe Berg, Jewish polymath, major league baseball player, and undercover World War Two O.S.S. agent—is realizing that the film has no interest in telling a traditional spy story. Usually espionage stories focus more on the intrigue itself than the players: we care what spies do, very rarely who they are. It’s because of this that most James Bond films treat their antihero as a cypher, a man who acts but scarcely for motivations we understand. But The Catcher Was a Spy is concerned solely with its subject and history’s inability to comprehend him. The film opens with Berg (Paul Rudd) as an aging player for the Boston Red Sox who travels to Japan in 1934 for an exhibition game. Before leaving the country, he surreptitiously climbs to the top of a tall building and shoots footage of their naval harbor which he promptly hands to the State Department upon returning to America. When asked why, he replies that he believes a war with Japan is inevitable and he wants to do his part to serve his country. His answer is clearly hiding something, but as an athlete fluent in seven languages, he’s too valuable for the government to pass up, so he’s hired as a member of the nascent Office of Strategic Services. When World War Two erupts, he convinces his superiors to let him do some field work. His first mission: travel to Nazi-occupied Italy and ascertain the whereabouts of Werner Heisenberg, the head of the German program to develop a nuclear bomb. If he discovers Heisenberg is close to succeeding, he must assassinate him.
The film can be read as an interrogation of a man who spent his entire life fleeing interrogation. Lewin wisely never lets us get a focused bearing on the man, insinuating in one sequence a repressed homosexuality before throwing him into a passionate sex scene with Sienna Miller in the next. One moment he denies caring about his Jewish heritage—“Aren’t you a Jew?” “I’m Jew-ish.”—the next he reverently attends a synagogue before shipping out to Europe. He is at once passionate about learning and obsessed with physical strength; he’s unfazed by carnage yet hesitant about killing. He knows Heisenberg must be stopped, yet seems reluctant to pull the trigger. But why? The film doesn’t explain. But then, neither does history. In real life Berg was so secretive that, according to Dawidoff’s book, the whereabouts of his bodily remains are unknown. Any explanation Lewin could’ve offered would’ve been superficial at best, grossly inaccurate conjecture at worst.
Berg’s ambiguity could have easily translated onscreen as an indecisive woodenness, but Rudd galvanizes the role into something intriguingly nuanced. Freed from the piss-taking sarcasm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Judd dives into this meaty role with considerable relish, reminding us that under his goofy everyman grin lies an actor capable of genuine pathos. As the son of Jewish immigrants who spent his formative years living in both America and England, it’s easy to see how the ethnically/culturally ambivalent Berg might have appealed to him. He’s also aided by a surprisingly robust supporting cast: Jeff Daniels plays the relaxed yet no-nonsense Bill Donovan, head of the O.S.S.; Paul Giamatti plays the cautious, out-of-his-element Dutch-American physicist Samuel Goudsmit; Guy Pearce plays Robert Furman, fellow intelligence operative.
The Catcher Was a Spy is an unapologetically minor film—it doesn’t try to imitate bigger historical spy films like Bridge of Spies (2015). It’s comfortable with being small and intimate. The very few times it tries to exceed its introverted means it almost falls apart. The scene where Berg and Goudsmit storm a Nazi stronghold in Italy is embarrassing to watch with its out-of-place shaky-cam cinematography, non-existent spatial awareness, and CGI blood-spurts. But the sequence is salvaged afterwards with an understated scene where Berg talks with two Italian civilians about surviving during wartime, even if the only means of maintaining one’s dignity is something as simple as taking time out of every week to clean one’s bicycle. And that’s this film’s appeal: an attention to the moments between the moments where we learn the most about human beings, even if those human beings are complete enigmas.