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Paul Rudd strikes out with WWII whiff 'Catcher Was a Spy'

A fascinating true story of baseball and atomic spies is reduced to a lifeless, unsubtle biopic.


You can't fault Paul Rudd for stepping up to the plate and at least trying something different. In the first ten minutes of "The Catcher Was a Spy" he beats a guy up in an alley and gives Sienna Miller a vigorous seeing-to over a piano.

Unfortunately he isn't that convincing at either.

Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff recounting a fascinating true story, "Catcher" does a disappointing disservice both to Rudd and to the real-life catcher/spy Moe Berg. Berg was a journeyman professional baseball player better known for his engaging intellectualism than his skill on the diamond. He held degrees from Princeton and Columbia, spoke multiple languages and made short work of trivia questions on popular radio quiz shows. But he was also an endlessly secretive and mysterious man who jealously guarded his privacy from even those who considered themselves friends.

Sadly, Rudd's agelessly boyish good looks and relatable likability just don't lend themselves to the depths of the Berg enigma. At one of the film's premiere screenings at the Sundance film festival this week, director Ben Lewin described the difficulties of finding a face for Berg. I don't know who would have been a better choice than Rudd, but you could start by looking down the cast list at Paul Giamatti, who might have done something interesting with the lead role instead of being relegated to a mugging supporting character.

Let's call that strike one.

Giamatti plays Samuel Goudsmit, a real-life Dutch scientist who helped smash the German atomic bomb programme headed by Werner Heisenberg. The two were friends until World War II divided them -- Heisenberg actually stayed at Goudsmit's house in the US just a few months before the outbreak of the war. By choosing Berg over Goudsmit, I can't help feeling "Catcher" picked the wrong man to focus on. In real life Goudsmit chased rival scientists across Italy, France and Germany, all the while desperately searching for news of his parents murdered in a concentration camp. In "Catcher", he's a nervous egghead who basically disappears from the narrative.

Having chosen Berg as its subject, "Catcher" can't even seem to keep the spotlight on the baseball-loving boffin. The film tries to sex up Berg's story by inserting him into a battle scene or two, but he's relegated to passively taking cover while others do the running and gunning. And as the film progresses the focus drifts from the mystery of Moe Berg to the mystery of Werner Heisenberg, who is even today the subject of debate about whether he failed to build a bomb for the Nazis or deliberately chose not to. Heisenberg, played by Mark Strong, effectively becomes the subject of the film, but only in endless scenes of people talking about him. You can find a much better exploration of his motives and actions in the play and film "Copenhagen", starring Daniel Craig as the famous physicist.

Strike two.

It's a shame neither Rudd nor the script really gets to grips with the captivating Berg. There are a lot of questions to be asked about him: Why did this bookish intellectual feel at home on the baseball field? Why did he spy on Japan on his own initiative? How did he end up a penniless drifter? The film only gets to grips with one such poser: Why was he so secretive?


"The Catcher Was a Spy" suggests Moe Berg wasn't entirely straight, but you have to read between the lines.


"Catcher" offers the explanation that Berg was at the very least bisexual. Don't hold out for any dude-on-Rudd action, though: We get extended shots of him bending Sienna Miller over a piano but only coy glances and manly hands brushing together to suggest he wasn't entirely straight. The film does offer an interesting glimpse of the innuendo that swirled around any chap in the olden days who had the temerity not to marry, but it does so with the subtlety of a fastball straight down the middle of the plate by having more than one character straight out ask if Berg is queer.

That lack of subtlety is everywhere. When Berg is tired of being cooped up in an office, he just yells at someone that he's tired of being cooped up in an office. Which, incidentally, glosses over the fact the real Berg had already parachuted into Yugoslavia to hang out with partisans before he was ever assigned to the Heisenberg mission.

And that's strike three. You're outta there!

Ultimately, Berg finds himself face-to-face with Heisenberg with a gun in his pocket. Should he pull the trigger? Can he? By this point Berg is such a non-entity in his own story it's hard to care either way. 

There's definitely some interesting films to be made about the intricacies of wartime assassination, the split-second life-or-death decisions ordinary men must make, and the race to prevent the German bomb. "The Catcher Was a Spy" isn't any of them. Maybe the extraordinary life of Moe Berg is simply better suited to a book than to a film. For Paul Rudd it's a swing and a miss.

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