‘The Catcher Was a Spy’: A Ballplayer Particularly Adept at Stealing Signs

Posted June 21, 2018 3:42 p.m. EDT

“The Catcher Was a Spy” is a character drama and an espionage thriller with a premise so peculiar that a fiction writer would be hard pressed to contrive it. As it happens, the storyline is plucked from the marginalia of World War II history. And from the history of American baseball.

Morris, aka Moe, Berg, the protagonist of this based-on-true-events picture, was of that once elite and now seemingly rather rare breed, the scholar athlete. A Princeton graduate fluent in more than half a dozen languages, he passed the New York bar exam while beginning his professional baseball career as player and coach in the early 1920s.

This movie sketches out his career with several teams (notably the Boston Red Sox) and his intriguing personal life, and then it concentrates on his most dangerous, and emotionally fraught, overseas mission for the United States government: a confrontation with the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Berg’s assignment is to determine whether the scientist is making a fission bomb for the Nazis. His orders are unambiguous: If he believes Heisenberg has embarked on such a project, he is to assassinate him.

Paul Rudd plays Berg with the droll, boyish charm he’s brought to dozens of other roles, but he adds a protective coating. This movie, directed by Ben Lewin from a Robert Rodat script (one adapted from Nicholas Dawidoff’s fascinating 1994 biography of Berg), relishes Berg’s compulsion to remain an enigma even to those closest to him. He conducts a passionate affair with a piano teacher named Estella (Sienna Miller). In their first scene together, he is so moved by her playing that he stands her up, lifts her skirt and bends her over the keyboard. And when asked if he’s gay — a question that comes up in both his baseball and military worlds — he defers. “I’m good at keeping secrets” is all he’ll say to his Army mentor (Jeff Daniels) after being asked point blank.

“The Catcher Was a Spy” has what they used to call an all-star cast: Guy Pearce, Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson and Giancarlo Giannini all are used to excellent effect. This is also an unusually literate movie, one that cites Heisenberg’s own famous uncertainty principle the better to bring it to bear on the scenario itself. Berg and Heisenberg conduct most of their dialogue, when they finally meet, in chess moves. And the movie tantalizingly leaves open the question of whether the game ended in a mate or a resignation.

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Additional Information:

“The Catcher Was a Spy" is rated R for language and over-the-piano sex. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.