Movie Review: “The Catcher was a Spy” makes for a subdued, tentative historical thriller

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You always knew Moe Berg, the big league catcher and quiz show king turned OSS spy during World War II, would make an interesting movie.

And that’s what “The Catcher was a Spy” is — interesting. That it’s not riveting or fascinating or edge-of-your-seat dazzling may owe as much to the man who was the subject of that titular biography and the film built around him.

He “knows how to keep a secret,”  Berg (Paul Rudd) assures the pre-CIA OSS chief “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Daniels) in an interview for what he hopes will be an interesting post-baseball career. The real Berg, smart but close-mouthed, famous but not that famous, held a lot close to his vest. The film implies this was because he was a closeted homosexual. And there’s nothing conclusively factual in that regard.

So maybe he dressed up in Japanese garb and smuggled a film camera to the roof of a building during an all-star baseball tour of Japan in the late 1930s because he was a patriot. Or maybe he liked keeping secrets from people, including the friendly college professor (Hiroyuki Sanada) who approached him and might have bedded him.

The Japanese didn’t develop radar. But gaydar, apparently, was no problem.

The film’s Berg maintained a torrid relationship with a piano teacher (Sienna Miller), never more torrid, the film suggests, than when homophobic teammates on the Boston Red Sox assumed he was “queer.”

A smart baseball player, a lifetime .250 or so hitter, so educated (with a PhD, with degrees from Princeton and Columbia) that he was known in sports columns, on radio quiz shows and around the league as “the Professor,” that sort of slur was almost bound to happen in the 1930s.

But “The Catcher was a Spy” loses some of its edge over that very mystery, the uncertainty about who this man really was. Whatever Rudd, the screenwriter and director have to work with feels circumscribed by how closely they want to hew to the historical facts of his story, handcuffed by the gay life they cannot prove he had.

What “Catcher” does best is recreate the period, the sense of a man who was much more than this game he loved and clung to beyond his prime. Even as his Sox manager Joe Cronin (Shea Whigham) insists it’s time to “hang up the cleats and coach,” Berg is hellbent on maintaining a toehold in the playing part of the game.

He shows off his multi-lingual skills in Japan (amusingly), and in tracking down the one Princeton colleague he knows can get him into Washington, post Pearl Harbor. Japanese, German, Italian, French, he speaks them all.

And when the time comes and somebody with his athletic prowess, focus and linguistic adaptability is needed, he’s off that boring desk job and in the field, trying to help figure out if the Germans are close to having an atomic bomb.

Berg’s compelling story — not quite as sizzling as most spy fiction (again, they were sticking close to the truth) — lured a dazzling cast to the film. Tom Wilkinson, Guy Pearce, Daniels and Miller, Paul Giamatti (as a scientist) and Mark Strong, playing the Nobel Prize winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Berg’s quarry, all signed on.

That wasn’t the case in terms of writer and director. Ben Lewin may be a veteran of decades of character dramas (“Georgia,” “Please Stand By”), but this isn’t his bailywick. He handles the limited combat sequences well, but there’s no tension or urgency to any of this.

The stakes are explained, and anybody who knows anything about Berg or World War II Nazis-and-the-Bomb movies will know the shorthand — splitting the atom, “heavy water”  and the like.

But he’s no Spielberg and this is no “Bridge of Spies.”

Rudd’s turns as “Ant-Man” underscored his physical suitability to the role. He’s a convincing, squat catcher-type big leaguer, and a somewhat interesting (short of fascinating) “man of mystery” who holds his own with the heavyweights he co-stars with.

It’s just that “Catcher,” in the end, is as superficial and glib as the punned title of Nicholas Dawidof’s biography, which became the title of the film. Here are some (not all) highlights of Berg’s storied life, here’s his Big Moment, here’s what we think underscored his personality.

The movie is imminently watchable, and the surface sheen is fine, but the real Berg remains more mystery than man with a mission.

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MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, violence and language

Cast:  Paul Rudd, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Mark Strong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Connie Nielsen

Credits:Directed by Ben Lewin, script by Robert Rodat, based on the Nicholas Dawidof biography. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:38

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