There’s a moment in “The Catcher Was a Spy,” the new Paul Rudd-led biopic about the Major League catcher, polyglot and American operative, Morris “Moe” Berg that feels out of place. In the scene, Berg (Rudd) is in the cabin of a ship headed for the coast of Italy. Joining Berg is the physicist, Samuel Goudsmitt (Paul Giamatti) who expresses to him the personal import of their mission to stop the threat of a German fission bomb.
“You are a Jew, right, Mr. Berg?” Goudsmitt asks.
Berg, with a trace of an impish smile replies “Jew-ish.”
The joke is a groaner for sure, but it’s representative of a larger problem that runs throughout. The film wants to make Berg’s Judaism a centerpiece — the fact of it is right upfront in the title cards along with the stakes (Germans split the atom; a potential nuclear bomb could change the course of World War II; the U.S. sent a Jewish baseball player to kill Heisenberg), so it’s interesting that the Berg it portrays hesitates to call himself a Jew. Or, at least it could be interesting if that hesitation led to a tale of discovery, of taking charge of one’s identity and taking pride in it. But despite a perfunctory-seeming scene in a Swiss synagogue, it never quite gets there.
In effect, director Ben Lewin, an Australian best known in the States for his 2012 film “The Sessions,” has made a film about micro-aggressions. Berg’s Judaism enters into the narrative only when, say, a former schoolmate snidely apologizes for the Princeton men’s choir singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“at least it’s not ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’”). Or when Italian guides, thinking Berg doesn’t understand them, refer to him as “the Jew.” Or when Berg’s boss in the Office of Strategic Services (Jeff Daniels in a very Jeff Daniels performance) says “I don’t know what god you believe in, Berg, if any, but I’ll be praying to mine to keep an eye on you.”
These instances affirm that, whatever Berg’s misgivings, the world will always see him as a Jew. This rings true, but would play better as tension if we ever got a sense of what was driving Berg’s decision to enter a life or death mission to begin with. He doesn’t present as much of a patriot. Maybe screenwriter Robert Rodat, who also wrote “Saving Private Ryan” thought it would be too pat to attribute Berg’s activities during the Second World War to the plight of his people. And given what we know of Berg’s life — the screenplay is mined from the 1994 Nicholas Dawidoff biography of the same name — it is.
Because the film is so wishy-washy on motivation the stakes never result in any suspense. A battle scene in the Italian countryside feels limp and video game-y. The meant-to-be nail bitter sequence where Berg listens to Heisenberg’s lecture, ready to pull the trigger if he drops a hint that the Reich has cracked the bomb, is clawless. The Holocaust and the toll of the war receive lip service but how Berg feels about any of it is inscrutable by design. His mantra, arrived at after playing in a Christian youth league as a kid, is “I don’t fit,” which reads a bit like a meta-commentary of the miscast Mr. Rudd who flails in both action and love scenes.
Berg was certainly a complicated man, something the film goes to great lengths to play up with the aid of its central metaphor: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which looms over his pursuit of the great physicist who coined it (Mark Strong wearing a bad hairpiece but speaking in a credible German accent). Does Heisenberg have the bomb? If he could, would he make it? Can Berg kill a man? Depends on the man being killed and the man doing the killing. In the end, some of these questions are answered and others remain subject to debate, but by painting Moe Berg as a cipher, “The Catcher Was a Spy” sacrifices drama for fidelity to the facts — or lack thereof.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern