The Spy Behind Home Plate


Moe Berg: The catcher is a spy.

(2019) Documentary (The Ciesla FoundationMoe Berg, Larry Merchant, Sam Berg, Ira Berkow, David Povich, Bud Selig, Nicholas Dawidoff, Jerry Reinsdorf, Brad Ausmus, Franklin Foer, Neil Goldstein, Tommy Thomas, Irwin Berg, Ed Harkey, Ray Robinson, Denise Shames, Robert Kaplan, Joseph Cascarella, Ray Errol Fox, Jonathan Black, Stan Bernard.Directed by Aviva Kempner

 

They say truth is stranger than fiction but sometimes truth is exactly like fiction. The story of Moe Berg, a handsome Jewish baseball player during what is considered the Golden Age of baseball reads like something Ian Fleming might have written. You might well scoff but the fact is that Berg knew Fleming and the two were friendly – who knows how much of Fleming’s fiction was truth?

Morris “Moe” Berg was born to Jewish immigrants who clearly hoped for a better life for their children; his dictatorial dad wanted his brother Sam to become a doctor, which in fact he became; he wanted Moe to be a lawyer. Moe in fact did graduate from the Columbia University School of Law but preferred a career in baseball, a game he loved to play and excelled in as an undergrad at Princeton.

As a Major League ballplayer, Berg was middling; he did last 15 years in the majors as a can’t hit/good field catcher for five different teams (mainly in the American League). He started out with his only National League team the Brooklyn Robins (who later became the Dodgers) as a shortstop, but in something of a fluke he wound up being a catcher because Brooklyn needed someone behind the plate more than they did in the infield. He was nicknamed “the Professor” because of his insatiable thirst for knowledge. He spoke seven languages fluently and did extraordinarily well on the radio quiz show Information Please to the astonishment of his teammates – the audio clips from his appearance on the show are among the highlights of the film.

Berg spoke Japanese fluently which is likely the reason that he was added to an all-star team that toured Japan in 1933 and again in 1934 and it might be there that his career in espionage began. He took clandestine footage of the Tokyo skyline during a visit to a hospital there which according to journalist Paul Bernard may have been used to assist James Doolittle in his retaliatory raid following Pearl Harbor, although Kempner doesn’t bother to follow up on the claim. Then again, much about what we know about Berg is conjecture; the man was intensely private during his life and kept mainly to himself. Like both of his siblings, he never married and while he had people he was friendly with, even his closest friends admitted that he was a hard man to truly know.

When Berg was asked later in life what he did in the war, he would only smile and hold a finger to his lips, as if what he did was top secret. As a matter of fact, it was. His great assignment occurred during the Second World War when he was recruited by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) to locate Italian physicists and determine how close the Germans were to successfully detonating an atomic bomb. He was also tasked with observing their genius physicist Werner Heisenberg who was in charge of the project with orders to kill him on the spot if it appeared they were close. Most of what we know bout his service in the OSS came from secret documents released years after the war was over.

There are a ton of interviews in this movie, maybe too many; some of them appear from an aborted documentary from years ago that was partially filmed but never completed.. Some of the interviews are with people who neither knew him or were particular experts on his career. There is archival footage of his baseball career (and they do show excerpts of the home movie footage he took in Japan) as well as plenty of photographs but the movie feels padded out and extended; I get the sense that Kempner was frustrated that there isn’t more out there on a man who on the surface at least seemed far more intriguing than most documentary subjects.

There is a ton of information but we never get a sense of who Berg was as a person and that was probably how Berg wanted it. He remains today as ever an enigma, a man who fascinates even the casual viewer but is essentially not really knowable; even those closest to him admit that he was a difficult man to really get to know. That hardly makes for good documentary filmmaking but Kempner does the best she can with what she had. A pity she didn’t cut out some of the chaff here and settled for a shorter film.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one, almost too good to be true.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berg was played by Paul Rudd in a dramatization last year of one of several books written on his story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher is a Spy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Isle of Dogs

Premium Rush


Premium Rush

Just because there’s a cab behind you doesn’t mean you’re on the right road.

(2012) Action (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Sean Kennedy, Wole Parks, Aasif Mandvi, Kymberly Perfetto, Christopher Place, Brian Koppelman, Boyce Wong, Jimmy P. Wong, Darlene Violette. Directed by David Koepp

 

Some movies have a great deal of depth. They require thought, concentration and a bit of contemplation to truly appreciate properly. Then there are movies like this one; the cinematic equivalent of a double shot of espresso with a Red Bull chaser.

Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) – whose name is pronounced like the ACME-using coyote from the Looney Tunes cartoons – is a New York City bike courier who delivers packages all over Manhattan on a lightweight modified bike with no brakes. He’s cocky, fearless and lives for the adrenaline high that his job delivers. He’s smart too – he actually passed the bar exam but you won’t find him in a corporate cubicle. Oh no. Wilee is no mere office drone. He has a better life in mind for himself.

Which apparently includes a girlfriend named Vanessa (Ramirez) although she’s not so sure. In fact, Wilee’s rival courier Manny (Parks) thinks that she’d be better off with him. He apparently really has some sort of need to prove his superiority over Wilee, always up for a race with his rival. Wilee, being the free spirit that he is, has no time for this.

In fact, he’s too busy picking up a package from his alma mater from Nima (Chung) who also happens to be Vanessa’s roommate coincidentally – for a premium rush job, which the customer is paying extra dollars to get to its destination just a little bit quicker. However, there’s a creepy guy named Bobby Monday (Shannon) who wants the package and will do anything to get it. In fact, he needs to steal it in order to pay off a substantial gambling debt. The only reason Monday isn’t already dead is that he is a New York City cop. Monday takes off after Wilee in the streets of New York on a high-speed chase that both men are desperate to win.

And that’s all the plot you need to know. Anything else doesn’t really matter – in fact most of the plot I mentioned above doesn’t matter either, other than the last sentence starting with “Monday takes off.” This is all about adrenaline-fueled hard-charging bike stunts in the streets of New York. It’s like the X-Games urban war that you’ve always wanted to see. If they could have gotten Tony Hawk to do some tricks off of the parked cars they would have had it made.

The pacing is hyperkinetic with the story jumping back and forth through flashbacks. Graphics show the routes taken through the city by the couriers, and graphics and flash forwards show the choices available to Wilee at various intersections and the potentially lethal consequences of some of his options. Those are some of the most fun scenes in the movie.

Gordon-Levitt is an appealing actor who is moving up the ranks from indie darling into legitimate star. He has been busy in a wide variety of movies and looks to be making the movie into the top tier of Hollywood stardom. It doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty buff looking here which is sure to make him a few new fans among the ladies.

Shannon is a versatile character actor who often has a dark streak in his characters. Here he is darker than most of the roles I’ve seen him in, a quite impressive villain who is out of control, and believes his badge renders him invulnerable to justice. Monday is the worst kind of bad cop and Shannon keeps him from becoming too much of a cartoon.

This is almost all action and no exposition. New Yorkers will find this a little bit more fun because of the locations, and men are going to like the non-stop action. There isn’t a lot here for those looking for relationships, character development or romance. It’s mostly about bicyclists taking insane chances. The lead character is well-named – he’s fearless and maybe too clever for his own good. I might have rated this higher had an anvil been dropped on his head.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences and a clever use of graphics. Gordon-Levitt is engaging and Shannon makes a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: Very New York-centric. A little too much testosterone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some disturbing imagery. There are plenty of foul words though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the scenes set at Columbia Law School were filmed at Lerner Hall, the student center for the University.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The movie got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Next Day Air

FORREST J. ACKERMAN LOVERS: Detective Monday uses the name of the legendary science fiction fan/author/literary agent/historian as an alias.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Of Gods and Men