Baseball Espionage Thriller 'The Catcher Was A Spy' Strikes Out [Review]

If “The Catcher Was Spy” weren’t based on a true story, you’d most likely hear people say that it was far-fetched and implausible. The story of Moe Berg, a major-league baseball player whose double life had him spying on the Germans during WWII, was originally an extraordinary book by Nicholas Dawidoff, but much like many adaptations, the translation from page to screen just doesn’t work. This dull, stilted film by director Ben Lewin (who helmed 2012’s Sundance hit “The Sessions“), has a wowser of a cast, but unfortunately, many feel miscast in their respective roles.

READ MORE: Sundance 2018: The Most Anticipated Films Of The Festival

The film starts off in 1936, as Berg (an ill-fitting Paul Rudd) winds down another miserable season playing for the Red Sox. To have made it to the majors is quite an accomplishment, but once there, Berg just can’t cut it and raise his game to the next level. It’s not just the lack of quality on the playing field that’s hampering Berg, his teammates question his sexuality, and Lewin, although not as upfront on this topic as he should be, does hint at the fact that Berg was, most likely, gay. His closeted secret leads to Berg dating a woman, Estella (Sienna Miller), and their relationship is as distant and remorseful as you might think.

While in the obsessed baseball nation of Japan, Berg is greeted with open arms and feels at home, and takes some time to film valuable footage of Japanese stockyards, which sparks the interest of the CIA.  Jeff Daniels plays the wartime intelligence chief who recruits the highly intelligent and multilingual Berg, and before you know it the ball player is working with intelligence chief Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) and quantum scientist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), who used to be involved with the Nazi atomic bomb program led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). Of course, the goal is to stop Heisenberg from creating the bomb to end all bombs and the Nazis from winning the war, but what do they want Berg to do? Spy, of course, but also, if he ever has the chance, to kill the Nazi physicist. More scientists join the fray once this globe-trotting movie heads to Croatia as another scientist, Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson), tries to advance their mission with more clues.

Although the story might be seen as deserving of a cinematic treatment, it just never lifts off. Lewin’s old-school filmmaking approach does a disservice to “The Catcher Was A Spy,” as his conventional style dampens the tension. A promising action sequence that should work like gangbusters, a shootout on Italian ground, falls flat. You can tell Lewin doesn’t have much experience in this genre as the shape-shifting narrative is too much for him to handle.

Worst of all is Rudd, who lacks the mystery and intrigue that characterized Berg in the book. There isn’t a moment in this film when you don’t realize you’re watching Paul Rudd instead of Moe Berg. It’s a highly miscast role that proves to be the major flaw of the film. Maybe another actor, with more dramatically charged chops, could have bypassed Lewin’s flawed direction and made this movie decent or even watchable.

The spy genre is a tricky business, because the tempo and flow of the film must adapt to numerous different scenarios and narrative changes. In Lewin’s movie, however, the ever-changing intricacies of Dawidoff’s book are rendered flat, unappealing and messy. There isn’t any grit to the proceedings, just crisply shot, old-fashioned storytelling which brings a severe sense of familiarity despite the actual tale being anything but familiar. Lewin has managed to make the unthinkable happen — he’s turned a celebrated WWII spy into the most boring man imaginable. [D]

Click here for our complete coverage from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival