It’s easy to imagine scrappy filmmakers rummaging through the anecdotes of history, searching for amazing-but-true stories to transform into hit movies (or at least some Oscar bait). But it’s not enough merely to find a fascinating nugget of trivia; you also have to turn it into a good film. And therein lies the tragedy of “The Catcher Was a Spy.”
“Catcher” stars Paul Rudd as real-life pro baseball player Moe Berg, whose sporting career was perhaps overshadowed by his bizarre overqualifications: He graduated Princeton, Magna Cum Laude, and was fluent in multiple languages. He made regular guest appearances on highfalutin trivia shows. And to top it all off, he was a spy for the U.S. government during World War II.
It’s the sort of character description that would be wildly implausible if it wasn’t, you know, totally true. Berg’s life is a natural for the movies, but it’s difficult to imagine how the film we got out of it turned out so dramatically inert.
Directed by Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”), “Catcher” has all the ingredients of a thrilling pulp story. Berg is a larger-than-life character played by one of the smarmiest actors in Hollywood (and that’s a compliment). He’s directly involved in an assassination attempt against Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who appears to be developing a nuclear bomb for Adolf Hitler. These are not subtle storytelling beats.
“Catcher” also portrays its Jewish protagonist as a closeted gay or bisexual man, making him a national hero at a time when his own identity was ostracized on multiple fronts. Lewin’s film practically treats Berg’s sexual orientation as its own superpower. When he’s questioned by a commanding officer and asked point-blank if he’s gay, Berg cleverly smirks, “I’m good at keeping secrets.” Which of course makes him the perfect man for the job.
And yet “The Catcher Was a Spy” undersells every major moment in Berg’s life. There are no big heroic moments, the suspense is muted, the romance is sidelined, and the stakes relatively nebulous. Heck, Berg never even confirms whether Heisenberg was making the bomb in the first place. The biggest adrenaline pump comes when Berg, stir-crazy after working at a desk during World War II, runs at full speed down a hallway. There’s a shootout later on that gets less attention than that one short sprint.
It’s easy to imagine “Catcher” playing like a pointed response to Marvel superheroics, in which a larger-than-life real hero gets to play Captain America while representing Jewish and LGBTQ+ audiences alike. The material is right there, in the plot. But instead it’s a film of quiet conversations, minimal action and vague suspense.
So what, then, is the point of “The Catcher Was a Spy” if not to entertain? If not to thrill? If not to elevate Moe Berg’s status in history? It’s generally hard to figure that out from what Ben Lewin’s film shows us. Lewin seems to think that Berg was kind of a neat guy, likable and thoughtful, who did some interesting things in World War II. He rescued Berg’s historical anecdote but kept his story anecdotal, which hardly seems worth the bother.
Lewin’s film is not a tough watch, and if you don’t know anything about Berg it might be mildly interesting. But it’s a small film about a big person, and so light it betrays itself. There is substance here. There is entertainment to be found. And yet “The Catcher Was a Spy” simply takes its eye off the ball, and never finds it again.