Thursday, June 21, 2018

An outlier who was also an assassin

The Catcher Was a Spy, directed by Ben Lewin and opening Friday at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, is a taut almost meditative film about a true attempt to assassinate a famous German physicist during the Second World War. It’s one of these stories about a little-known hero in the annals of history and all the more because he’s such a fascinating character. Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) was a veteran catcher for the Boston Red Sox. But he was much more. A polymath, he could speak a dozen languages and his intellectual knowledge was matched by his physical prowess on the field and off. He was also a patriot. On a baseball goodwill trip to Japan he surreptitiously filmed the Japanese fleet on a premonition America would soon be going to war. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruited him as a spy and sent him to Europe to assassinate Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the man behind what the Allies believed was a German-made atomic bomb. The Catcher Was a Spy, intentionally or not, ends up being as much about Berg as the plot itself. Besides his intellectual acumen Berg, especially in the 1940s, was what we’d today call an outlier. He was single his entire life and while he had a girlfriend (Sienna Miller as Estella) it appeared he was also bisexual. The epilogue says he spent the rest of his life devoted to his two great passions, books and baseball. The film, based on the book by Nicholas Davidoff, otherwise depicts a straightforward plot showing Berg and his military colleagues as they slip into war-torn Italy to meet some academic colleagues of Heisenberg (played by Paul Giannini, Giancarlo Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) who lead him to the German physicist’s Swiss lecture. Lewin’s direction is full of close-up shots or intimate office or social gatherings, with plenty of full screen images of Berg, almost as if probing his thought processes as the plot moves along. The acting is good and there is a battle scene that is authentic and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. Yet there are times one wishes for something more – less one dimensionality, perhaps, or a fillip or two. Giamatti, who I usually think of in comedy roles, is convincing enough as an Italian scientist, complete with accent, though I had to smile at first. But it’s also interesting how all these actors are aging. Jeff Daniels, 63, admittedly with makeup, is starting to look like an old man. Ditto for Tom Wilkinson, though he is now 70. We’re all getting older.

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