The story of Morris “Moe” Berg almost seems too good to be true, a character cooked up by a fabulist trying to magnify his own legend like Chuck Berry saying he hosted The Gong Show but also killed people for the CIA. And yet Moe Berg was remarkably accomplished and alluring enigmatic. A baseball player who also spoke 11 languages along with being a graduate of Princeton and Columbia, he seems like the stuff of legend, and that’s before you get into his actions in World War II. And yet despite this pedigree, Ben Lewin’s film about Berg, The Catcher Was a Spy, can’t latch onto an intriguing angle, choosing instead to leave Berg as a cipher but calling him an “enigma.”
In 1936, Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) is a middling catcher with the Boston Red Sox, but he seems happy to just play the game and use the opportunities it affords him like traveling to Japan to play in exhibition games but also do some research to see how close war might be. When the U.S. finally does go to war in 1941, Berg joins up with the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) where, due to his skill with languages and athletic ability, he’s tasked with stopping German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) from developing an atomic bomb. Partnered with a soldier (Guy Pearce) and a scientist (Paul Giamatti), the trio makes their way into Nazi-occupied Europe where Berg must wrestle with if he’ll be able to kill Heisenberg when the time comes.
There are some interesting ideas about Berg floating around in the movie. It’s strongly implied that he was a closeted homosexual, and that being closeted has given him the ability to “keep secrets.” There’s also the notion that Berg is both seen and unseen—he plays major league baseball, but he’s not an outstanding player. He has a steady relationship with Estella (Sienna Miller) but won’t marry her. He’s a man who seems most comfortable living in the ether, unable to be pinned down to anything but also with a specific set of skills. And if the film was worried about putting too fine a point on it, we eventually lapse into Berg narrating (something he doesn’t do for the rest of the movie) about how he personally relates to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
Casting Rudd in the role of Berg backfires. In some ways, Rudd is perfect for the role because he has a great everyman quality that makes you believe he could be a baseball player and a genius, but also inconspicuous enough that he could land an important assignment of meeting with a high-value German target. However, because the movie is so dead set on making Berg a mystery, there’s nothing for Rudd to latch onto. He’s a capable dramatic lead, but the movie seems reluctant to give him anything to chew on because if it takes a firm stand on Berg he’s no longer enigmatic.
Because The Catcher Was a Spy chooses to focus on keeping Berg a mess of contradictions, it lacks a personality it desperately needs. It’s not enough to simply throw a brilliant, mysterious character into the lead role. We need to care about why he’s there, and instead The Catcher Was a Spy just feels like it’s checking off boxes on Berg’s mission. The relationships all feel hollow despite the excellent cast, and so when Berg bids a tearful farewell to Estella or has a verbal chess match with Heisenberg, the scenes don’t work because they haven’t been grounded in anything. We don’t know if Berg truly loves Estella because he might be gay. We don’t know if Berg and Heisenberg are on the same wavelength because they don’t meet until the third act.
Moe Berg certainly has a story worth telling, but The Catcher Was a Spy needed a director who was willing to take chances on that story, whether through unusual narrative techniques, expanding the scope to include more of Berg’s life, or a willingness to ditch the enigma stuff and dive more into how he was “hiding” from the world. As it stands, The Catcher Was a Spy proves that just because Berg was mysterious, that doesn’t automatically make for an interesting movie.