The internal struggle of the protagonist is more interesting than how it all plays out.
The opening title cards for The Catcher Was a Spy, directed by Please Stand By’s Ben Lewin, lays out a plot tailor-made for something like Drunk History: It’s the year 1944 and the O.S.S. is worried that Germany might have the means to craft an atom bomb. So America sent a Jewish baseball player for the Boston Red Sox — who also frequents gay bars on the down low — to assassinate the Nazis’ physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Can’t you just imagine the likes of Drew Droege or Tiffany Haddish narrating this one, while slurring the phrase Office of Strategic Services?
The thing is, The Catcher Was a Spy isn’t as fun as that logline makes it sound. It isn’t what Lewin seems to be going for, despite presence of Ant-Man’s Paul Rudd. Instead, it’s the kind of movie where government operatives like to don herringbone suits and fedoras to conspire in the shadows of shady cobblestone streets. It’s the kind of movie where citrine lamp lights desaturate an already misty night, the same sort of color palette for Fury or Bridge of Spies or The Imitation Game. It’s the kind of movie where an unlikely hero, typically reserved for a Tom Hanks or a Benedict Cumberbatch during awards season, ends up changing the course of history.
The real sadness here, given the complexity of this film’s unlikely hero, Morris “Moe” Berg, is that The Catcher Was a Spy isn’t as memorable or unique when put against the war film genre it’s channeling.
Moe (Rudd), spotted in Switzerland, is all dolled up and snazzy, with the exception of the pistol he’s cocking and tucking away in his suit. He’s nervous. He has to go find Werner at a party and kill him, but once the two lock eyes, there’s a sense that Werner knows him — or, at least, recognizes him. From there, we flash back eight years to watch Moe as a ball player. He’s so close to closing out his catcher career, which is good for everyone in light of his failing knees, but the team’s new rookie player is suspicious. He got it in his head that Moe is gay, so he follows him one night and waits outside a gay bar, its neon pink sign one of the few sources of vibrant colors in this film. Most other scenes are dulled to browns and grays, perhaps a subtle sign that Moe, too, must dull his shine to fit in with those around him. But the rookie’s “gay panic” revenge plan backfires when Moe is much stronger and beats the crap out of the kid in a side alley. Moe is the kind of man who lives in the in-betweens and is highly aware of his surroundings.
He has a girlfriend named Estella (Sienna Miller), a piano teacher. She loves Moe, but is frustrated when he won’t acknowledge their relationship, even as he’s asked about his love life on a radio show. He won’t pop the question or even invite her along on the team’s victory tour to Japan.
While meeting for a quick tryst with an academic (Westworld and Logan’s Hiroyuki Sanada), the also closeted lover tells him a war between the U.S. and Japan is a sure thing. So, taking it upon himself as a loyal American, Moe sneaks up to the top of a hospital overlooking the harbor and starts recording footage of the war ships. He then takes it to William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels) of the O.S.S. With his background from Princeton and Columbia and ability to speak multiple languages, Moe is able to finesse a job with the organization. He rises up through the ranks and… you can glean most of the remaining story from there. It’s the kind of impossible-to-believe tale that seeks to inspire awe when you realize it’s based on a true story.
Moe is someone who feels most wanted and on top of his game in the library (where he can feed his IQ) and on the field (where he gets a sense of camaraderie). They’re both places where he can blend in. He’s not the all-star player for the Red Sox, but he has name recognition. He’s also the guy who grabs those moments when he can wow his teammates by flaunting his language skills with a group of Japanese delegates. By contrast, both of these places require his silence. On a baseball team, it’s the silence of his sexuality. Speak up and you’re not only booted from the team but made a societal pariah. The same goes for the armed forces and secret intelligence during that time. Moe becomes an asset for the O.S.S. but homosexuality is, obviously, an issue.
During his first interview for the job, William asks, “Are you queer?” Moe responds, “I’m good at keeping secrets.” It’s this idea that, because he was able to remain in the closet, he’s just as capable of maintaining secrets for the government. But it’s a tragic circumstance: the places where he feels most at home are places that would turn on him. William is a little different. He says he doesn’t care about who a man sleeps with as long as he can help win the war.
Moe is also Jewish, another element that makes him an outsider. He explains how he used to offer a fake last name because he was nervous about what others might think of him. In another scene, while traipsing through Europe to meet a contact, his guides start trash-talking and call him a Jew, assuming Moe can’t understand them.
Writing about the internal struggle of a character like Moe, however, is far more interesting than how all this plays out on screen. Lewin plays with these elements well enough, but at times these scenes end up feeling more like a backdrop or, at worst, filler moments amid Moe’s mission.
Rudd is such a capable actor, able to embrace the absurdity of a size-shrinking superhero like Scott Lang or the brutality of a blackmarket sci-fi doctor in Netflix’s Mute. Yet, here, he too is dulled by the material he’s working with. There’s rarely a wink or a smirk in the face of so many puns to be had: the homosexual ballplayer is nicknamed “Moe” Berg, and when asked what position he takes on the field, he says “catcher.”
As for the seriousness of the material, Rudd’s able to make due, especially during an unexpectedly moving moment involving a phone conversation between Moe and Estella. He’s not sure if he’ll return, so he just wants to hear her voice and she whispers back as tears roll down his cheeks. It’s brief, but in those seconds, we see it all: the genuine love these two share for each other, the struggle within him, and the fear of never returning.
The supporting cast of Paul Giamatti, Mark Strong, Guy Pearce, Tom Wilkinson, and Connie Nielsen offers equally fine performances that soon start to blend in to what we’ve seen before. The end results are, again, fine. The dialogue isn’t as snappy as a Bridge of Spies, it’s not as action-packed as Fury, it’s not as performance-driven or “prestige” as The Imitation Game, but the atmosphere is similar.
By the way, I’ll always have problems with films that want to embrace LGBTQ stories, but then ignore their inherent queerness. We never see an intimate moment on screen between Moe and his lovers — even though his homosexuality is crucial to the themes this film is playing with. The closest we get is some discreet hand-caressing between Moe and Sanada’s Kawabata. Meanwhile, we see Moe rushing home from the gay bar before he loses his erection so he can have sex with Estella on a piano. It’s almost like a government and pro-baseball league that want to use Moe’s skills to make them look good, but then force him into a closet of their own making.