When Nicholas Dawidoff’s book The Catcher Was a Spy was first published in 1994, it was one of those rare, unbelievable stranger-than-fiction stories that practically leaped off the page. The basic thumbnail went like this: During World War II, at the height of the A-bomb race between the U.S. and Nazi Germany, Moe Berg, a Jewish major-league baseball player who was leading a double life and spoke 10 languages, was sent on a top-secret mission overseas by the OSS to assassinate a German scientist. If all of that wasn’t enough, Berg was also a closeted homosexual.
Anyone who read the book immediately thought to themselves upon finishing it: “This would make a great movie!” Cut to 24 years later, and now this seeming slam-dunk of a true story is finally arriving in theaters. But sadly, it isn’t a great movie. It’s a disappointingly mild period thriller that’s light on thrills. Even Paul Rudd, one of the most likable actors in Hollywood, can’t rescue it.
When we first meet Berg, it’s eight years before his daring mission. He’s a catcher for the Boston Red Sox whose career is beginning to fade. In the clubhouse, he’s regarded as a bit of an enigma because he went to Princeton and Columbia and the Sorbonne, plus his sexuality has forced him to be aloof and secretive. A romantic relationship with a piano teacher (Sienna Miller, doing what she can with not much) seems like a loving one, but Berg seems to be play-acting the role a bit. This will turn out to be one of his greatest assets as a spy – his ability to pretend to be someone he’s not. He’s used to hiding in plain sight.
Even though the movie isn’t anything special, it’s nice to see Rudd in a serious, non-comedic, non-Ant Man role. He’s a great actor and one that audiences always seem to be happy to spend two hours in the company of. His ability to be suave without being too cocky is rare, and he brings that sort of delicate shading to Berg. If only director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) and writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) had juiced this already juicy story with more cloak-and-dagger snap, crackle, and pop. It holds your attention without ever really engaging you.
After Pearl Harbor is bombed and the United States is thrust into the war, a man with Berg’s language skills is all of a sudden very useful. Berg meets with the head of the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), played by Jeff Daniels. He asks Berg point blank if he’s queer. Berg replies that he’s good at keeping secrets — and that’s about as daring as this movie gets about its buried gay subplot. Soon enough, Guy Pearce and Paul Giamatti (in a thick-as-streudel accent) come along and give Berg his mission: to kill German scientist Werner Heisenberg (unfortunately not Bryan Cranston, but rather perennial baddie Mark Strong) before he can help the Nazis build the atomic bomb.
When the three arrive in Europe, with bullets flying when martinis aren’t being served, the movie briefly steps on the gas pedal. But it never quite kicks into the high-RPM World War II spy thriller gear you want it to. Instead, it just stalls out and becomes anticlimactic and blandly middle of the road. It’s a swing and a miss. C+