THE BIOPIC THE CATCHER WAS A SPY IS FULL OF PUZZLES
After graduating in philology from Princeton, learning at least a dozen languages, Morris “Moe” Berg (played by Paul Rudd) decides to make a career as a catcher for major league baseball. That is the first puzzle, since he has the intelligence to make a career in law or in business. Although the obvious explanation might be that he is extremely athletic, The Catcher Was a Spy deprives filmviewers of a look into his upbringing as a Jewish boy born in New York during 1902, whose humble family moved to a non-Jewish section of Newark, where he tried to gain acceptance though outside the Italian Catholic and Anglo Protestant communities, evidently by not acting too Jewish in a United States that had a lot of anti-Semitism in the Ivy League and elsewhere. Captain of the baseball team at Princeton, where a poor Jewish boy did not fit in, he was recruited by the minor leagues and then the Chicago White Sox in 1926, moved to the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, and finally the Boston Red Sox, ending his baseball career in 1939. Evidently the fact that he was Jewish was a plus, as the teams wanted to attract Jewish customers to attend games. While at the White Sox, he spent the off-year time completing his law degree at Columbia University, though he never practiced law—a puzzle not presented in the film.
The film begins with a scene in Zürich, but flashes back to the time when Berg is a baseball player. He evidently reveals so little of his personality to his teammates that a rookie guesses that he must be gay and follows him after a game only to be outslugged by Moe as he is en route to visit his girlfriend Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) with whom he has sex. But he makes a point of refusing to take her on his trip to Japan with an all-star team in 1934. During Berg’s visit to Japan, he connects with politician Isao Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada), giving a hint (or a puzzle) that they are both bisexual, and his friend confides that Japan (which had seized Manchuria in 1931) will inevitably be at war with the United States. One day he goes on top of a hospital to film the Tokyo harbor. That unique footage is donated to military intelligence in 1942, and Berg is hired by the Office of Strategic Services in 1943. An important assignment is to interview physicists in Italy during the last phases of the war there in 1944, seeking information about the progress of German physicists toward development of an atomic bomb, but he hears nothing definitive. When Germany’s Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) is scheduled to give a lecture in Zürich, Berg has that direct opportunity. Although the OSS orders him to kill Heisenberg if development of a bomb is imminent, the two meet and part on good terms, though Heisenberg is puzzled as to who he is, as he gives him the obviously phony name Anton Aziz.
The nuances of Berg’s personality are revealed in many ways throughout the film. Customary with biopics, director Ben Levin supplies titles at the end to inform filmviewers that Berg never married and he refused to accept the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award. More puzzling information about his later life is not revealed in the titles. Although he worked for the CIA for a year in the early 1950s, he never worked again, lived with siblings, and evidently died penniless at the age of 70. MH