Directed by Ben Lewin
Written by Robert Rodat
Anyone who has followed my film writing knows that I was deep into the ESPN 30 for 30 series, including all the way down to the numerous short films they released under that brand. I have since caught up and stopped writing about their news films with as much passion and vigor as I once did, but I bring it up because of the more curious and interesting 30 for 30 shorts I ever came across was Spyball, a film about a mediocre baseball player who moonlighted as a renaissance man fluent in numerous languages, which made him an important asset to the United States when it came to World War II. Principly, he was task with assassinating German scientist Werner Heisenberg, who was believed to be developing the fission bomb. Well, wouldn’t you know it, it seems Hollywood caught wind of the story too and decided to make a dramatic film about it.
Morris “Moe” Berg (Paul Rudd) was mostly a smart defensive catcher for the Boston Red Sox, whose career batting average below .250 assured he would be easily forgotten by baseball historians. However, Berg was also a very sharp man who, come World War II, put his talents to use for the United States government. He took an All-Star barnstorming trip to Japan as an excuse for reconnaissance and is soon tasked by his superior (Jeff Daniels) to seek out and kill a German scientist (Mark Strong). At his disposal is a veteran soldier (Guy Pearce) and a fellow scientist (Paul Giamatti). This secretive mission is one of many which went years without recognition, I’m sure, but what makes this one a little more interesting is Berg’s background as a ballplayer.
I’m including this review here as both a 2018 release as well as a Baseball movie. I’m not sure this qualifies as a typical baseball movie, as there is very little baseball action or commentary here, apart from a pretty effective scene where Moe plays a game in war torn Europe with some fellow soldiers, making both their day and his. So from that perspective, this is not a special film. But even when evaluated as just another 2018 release, it seems lacking. Berg’s really is an interesting story, but director Ben Lewin is more enamored with the idea of it than its execution, failing to ever connect through his storytelling to the character of Moe Berg. Likewise, Paul Rudd’s performance falls flat alongside the tepid direction. The brilliance of Spyball was the curiousness of the story. When extended to a feature length film, it feels too small.
The film surprisingly features an all-star cast: Tom Wilkinson, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd. I can see what perhaps attracted these accomplished actors to the project, and their performances are fine. There are a few memorable moments sprinkled throughout the film, including the initial meeting between Berg and Heisenberg, and the above mentioned baseball game with soldiers. But screenwriter Robert Rodat shows little ambition in his delivery of the story, falling victim to familiar tropes and crafting dialogue which often comes across as very forced and fake, which is disappointing given his resume as a screenwriter.
All in all this film is just fine. There is certainly nothing to outright dislike about the story or performances. As I said, it’s a very interesting story, and Moe Berg is certainly an enigma. But the film fails to make that intrigue come across in any exciting or engaging manner, resulting in a very standard, somewhat boring, and downright disappointing film. Would more baseball have helped? Maybe if it helped shape who Moe Berg was a little more. Would more battle scenes have helped? Probably not. Perhaps that’s the problem altogether: Nobody really knew who Moe Berg was. But if that’s the case, then I wish there was more mystery than what we get with The Catcher Was a Spy.