ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Spyball (2015)

Directed by Christina Burchard & Daniel Newman

Some stories just seem like they may be too good to be true, too cock full of mystery, suspense, and characters which could only be penned by the most imaginative screenwriters, those which it would be inconceivable to be real life people. But in reality, as I am sure most of us have seen, reality is often far more fascinating than fiction, delivering the unbelievable, larger than life characters that are then later adapted to fictionalized versions of themselves on television or in the movies. Films based on true stories are often the most popular, as it seems people connect much more with something they know to be real, even if the Hollywood version is a gross twisting of the truth for entertainment’s sake. But the story of Moe Berg could in fact be an amazing work of fiction filmmaking on its own, without any fluff or romanticizing the truth.

Berg was a baseball player, and a below average one at that. A lifetime .243 hitter who specialized in mediocre defense at shortstop later became a catcher of some efficiency. But Berg is more fascinating for his off the field accomplishments, which include being efficient in seven different languages and spying for the US Government. Burchard and Newman’s film focuses more on the latter than anything else in Berg’s life, chronicling his exploits as an undercover spy on barnstorming trips to Japan, and his post baseball adventures which include an assassination mission into Europe to eliminate Werner Heisenberg and any attempt by the Nazi’s to obtain the knowledge of nuclear fusion, or the atom bomb. It really does sound too good of a story to be true, and the filmmakers present it as fact, yet also happen to mention that Berg was a secretive person who did not discuss his service with the US Government, so I am not sure where their research comes from or how credible it is.

In fact, the filmmaking style is nothing too impressive overall, as we are essentially treated to “story time” with Bill “Spaceman” Lee of Boston Red Sox fan. From one on field eccentric to another off field one, the story time with Lee does happen to be the perfect framework within which to present the odd story of Moe Berg. As the story unfolds, I found myself much more wrapped up in the espionage of Berg than worrying about what techniques the filmmakers used, etc. In fact, this is great evidence that they pulled me into the story and held me through the run time. Whether that is the merit of Berg or Burchard/Newman is a question perhaps for others to answer, as for me the fact that I had a hell of a time watching this short is plenty on my plate to call this 30 for 30 short one of the better in the series, and certainly one of the most fascinating tidbits from sports history. If I were to pick from the 30 for 30 catalog that I would want Hollywood to dramatize, Spyball may top the list.

***1/2 – Great

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