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MOVIES: The Catcher Was a Spy - Review [Sundance 2018]

The story of Morris "Moe" Berg, a catcher for the Boston Red Sox who became a spy for the US government during World War II, seems perfect for the big-screen treatment. This was a Major League ballplayer who spoke multiple languages, held advanced degrees from Columbia and Princeton, and went undercover to discover whether or not the Nazi regime was capable of constructing a nuclear weapon. On the page, the story is fascinating, and when you cast Paul Rudd in the leading role and surround him with the likes of Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Mark Strong and Sienna Miller, it feels like a recipe for success.

Regrettably, director Ben Lewin's The Catcher Was a Spy fails to deliver on the promise of its premise. Plot elements are introduced only to be discarded, such as an early scene where a teammate, suspicious that Berg might be gay, follows him home and gets a beating for his troubles. This is shortly followed by a scene where Berg returns home to his longtime girlfriend (Miller) and makes passionate love to her on a piano bench. Later, while speaking to a Japanese ambassador (Hiroyuki Sanada) in a bar, Berg admits that he "likes to hide," which prompts the other man to place a hand over Berg's - and this is the last time the film makes any sort of reference to Berg's sexuality.

After taking the initiative to conduct a bit of reconnaissance during a goodwill trip to Japan, Berg falls in with an OSS chief (Daniels) and is tasked with working alongside brilliant physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Giamatti) to determine if Goudsmit's former colleague, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), has the ability to build an atom bomb. Berg travels to Italy and then Switzerland to infiltrate Heisenberg's inner circle, and if he determines that Germany is on the brink of completing their device, he has orders to terminate his quarry.

By all rights this should be nail-biting stuff, but Lewin fails to generate any real suspense or intrigue from the material. Even the film's largest action sequence, where Berg and Goudsmit traverse a ruined battlefield while dodging enemy gunfire, feels bland and uninspired. Rudd is no stranger to dramatic material, but he comes across as a bit too charming to be truly believable in this sort of role, and with its scant 95-minute running time, The Catcher Was a Spy feels more like the CliffsNotes version of Berg's story, barely scratching the surface of a fascinating real-life hero.

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