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Review: The Catcher Was a Spy (Sundance)

The Catcher Was a Spy (Sundance)
6 10

PLOT: The story of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a professional baseball player-turned O.S.S agent during World War II.

REVIEW: THE CATCHER WAS A SPY comes to Sundance with an appropriate amount of behind-the-scenes intrigue given the premise. Originally tipped as a TIFF 2017 entry, the premiere was canceled a few weeks before the festival when the final cut wasn’t ready in time. This actually isn’t that unusual, but its rare enough I wondered if the film would be problematic, although having seen it I can definitely say that, while utterly straightforward and not quite as good as the premise suggests, THE CATCHER WAS A SPY is an OK addition to the WW2 canon.

Berg’s story is definitely an interesting one. Despite holding advanced degrees in languages from Princeton, Berg shirked academia to become a mid-level Major League catcher, playing well into his thirties, a late age for a ballplayer. His appearances on radio quiz shows gave him notoriety, with him showing off his genius level intellect, but his personal life was shrouded in mystery, along with his post-baseball career.

Written by SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s Robert Rodat, director Ben Lewin’s film, based on the non-fiction account by Nicholas Dawidoff, reveals his entree into WW2 as an O.S.S agent. There, his flair for languages and ease with picking up subjects made him an invaluable interviewer for the nascent agency - the predecessor of the CIA.

Given Rudd’s involvement, I actually expected this to be semi-comic, or maybe a bit more gonzo in the CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND-mould. Instead, it’s totally straightforward, and played mostly serious, save for a few Rudd-quips. It’s a good dramatic part for him, and a logical step into more traditional leading-man roles, capitalizing on his new-found superhero status as ANT-MAN.

It’s a juicy part, although Lewin’s film packs an awful lot into ninety minutes. Too much even. The prologue sets-up the main crux of the story, that Berg’s been sent to interview scientist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong - playing his role mostly in German) to suss-out whether he’s working on the Nazi atomic project, and to kill him if need be. However, we never really get back to that story until the last twenty minutes or so, as we race through his recruitment and early missions, while also delving into his private life, with the case being made here that he was secretly bisexual. This strains his relationship with his live-in lover, Sienna Miller, although we’re never really told in a definite way if he’s actually gay or not, possibly due to the long-dead Berg not being around to confirm or deny.

Often, I complain about movies being too long, but THE CATCHER WAS A SPY could have benefitted from a more relaxed pace, as his climatic mission seems over before it begins. Meanwhile, the all-star cast is jarring, with actors like Shea Whigham, and Connie Nielsen showing up in virtual cameos, with big names like Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels and Paul Giamatti are in-and-out of the film in a way that makes it feel a little chaotic. Rodat and Lewin seem bent on giving us a thorough account, but it’s too unwieldy, and might have played better as a limited series.

Even still, THE CATCHER WAS A SPY is a good vehicle for Rudd, and an entertaining watch, although it’s maybe a little old-fashioned to really catch-on in a theatrical way (it feels like a made-for-cable movie). Streaming would be a logical home for this one, and while it could have been a much better film (or TV series) it’s still an entertaining enough spy tale with a cool hook.

Source: JoBlo.com

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