The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

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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

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions)


OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of spies

Jean Dujardin is stirred, not shaken.

(2006) Period Spy Spoof (Music Box) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre, Constantin Alexandrov, Said Amadis, Laurent Bateau, Claude Brosset, Francois Damiens, Youssef Hamid, Khalid Maadour, Arsene Mosca. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

You may wonder what spy novels looked like before Ian Fleming set pen to paper and came up with James Bond. If you have such thoughts, best check out the novel of agent OSS 117 by Jean Bruce; he wrote his first adventure featuring debonair spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in 1949, predating Fleming’s “Casino Royale” by three years. Although I don’t know for certain if Fleming read the Bruce novels, certainly the similarities between 007 and 117 can’t be overlooked.

Cairo, 1955 – a crack agent of the OSS (the French version of MI-6 and the CIA) named Jack Jefferson (Lefebvre) has been murdered. The French government opts to send their best agent and Jefferson’s close friend Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, a.k.a. agent 117, to “make the Middle East safe” and solve his friend’s murder.

He is given the cover of a chicken importer and Jack’s former secretary Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bejo) to assist him, as he wades through American and Soviet spies, Nazi splinter cells, the supersexy Egyptian Princess Al Tarouk (Atika) and ghosts from his own past in order to get to the truth. In the meantime, he will demonstrate the French colonialist attitudes of the time, not to mention sexism on an epic scale. The joke is, of course, that those attitudes were standard at the time but looking back now, they are completely cringe-worthy.

Dujardin gets the look and mannerisms of Sean Connery-era Bond just right in this strange mixture of Clousseau, Bond and Austin Powers. Although the novels that Bruce wrote were straight-forward spy thrillers, this film is far from that ethos; instead, it makes merry fun of the genre, taking every cliché from the Bond series and throwing it back without mocking it so much. It is Hubert who is the most ridiculous, displaying an abysmal ignorance of local culture and customs but he is just so dang charming you don’t really resent him for it. One of the film’s funniest sequences is when a sleeping Hubert is awakened by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, he yells at him to “shut the **** up” and eventually climbs the minaret and pounds him into silence. It sounds horrible on paper and I’m sure many Muslims might take offense as written but it made me chuckle nonetheless.

The overall mood is enhanced by Hazanavicius’s use of period camera and optical techniques (such as rear projection during scenes in which the actors are in cars driving in the streets of Cairo, or the use of Technicolor that brings out the colors while giving the whole movie a kind of faded quality), as well as opening titles that recall the great Saul Bass.

Some of the jokes fell a little flat to me – that might have been a case of the humor losing something in the translation. Although the movie was only an hour and a half long, it felt like it had been stretched a bit. The movie’s climax also seemed a bit drawn out. However, if you like your spoofs over-the-top and Airplane-like, this might well be a hidden gem for you. Be aware this isn’t a Bond with all the gadgets and the Q Division; this is the Bond that was a suave, charming lady-killer one moment and a ruthless, rough killer the next. This is the Bond of From Russia with Love more than the Bond of Goldfinger. Well, technically, this isn’t Bond at all.

Yes, Bond and Hubert share the same pedigree in many ways but they are different animals. Hubert has a Gallic joie de vivre that no British actor could ever hope to duplicate. Part of me wonders how the movie would have fared if they had played it straight and cut out the outrageous aspects. Is the world ready for a truly international spy? We will have to wait for the answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Very reminiscent of the spy films of the 60s, with a Gallic twist. Some of the humor here is over the top and universal.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels too much like something else at times. I wonder how much better it would have been as a film if it had been played straight.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a bit of sexuality, a few bad words and a whole lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of OSS 117 appeared in 265 novels and seven feature films in France between 1956 and 1970.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel but everything else is pretty generic.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Cars 2