Truth is stranger than fiction, the saying goes, but sometimes the strangest truth doesn’t translate all that compellingly as drama. There’s no reason why the story of Moe Berg, a highly educated major-league baseball player whose somewhat mysterious life encompassed becoming an Allied spy in Europe during World War II, shouldn’t be fine film material, especially after it has already generated an acclaimed best-seller in Nicholas Dawidoff’s “The Catcher Was a Spy.”
Yet there’s a curious lack of credibility and urgency in this big-screen adaptation, the kind of respectable near-miss that can happen when worthy talent apply themselves to a project they’re just not ideally suited for. In this case, that would be “The Sessions” director Ben Lewin (who also has “Please Stand By” out this month) and star Paul Rudd, who is always a likable actor but was probably the wrong one for the job.
After a prologue in 1944 Zurich that Robert Rodat’s screenplay will return to as a climactic bookend, Robert Rodat’s (“Saving Private Ryan”) screenplay rewinds to 1936, when Rudd’s Moe Berg is playing for the Boston Red Sox near the end of a long if undistinguished pro career. A rookie teammate questions his sexual orientation, and gets beaten up by our hero for being a pest — yet the running thread of Berg being possibly a closeted gay man never leads anywhere here. Still, it definitely neutralizes whatever heat was intended in scenes with Estella (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend he lives with but won’t marry, and keeps at a certain emotional distance.
On a goodwill baseball exhibition tour of Japan, Moe sneaks into a Tokyo hospital to covertly film the harbor and Navy shipyards from its rooftop. As the two nations are on the verge of war, this footage is of considerable value to the U.S. government. The OSS Chief to whom he presents it (Jeff Daniels) is duly struck by Berg’s enterprise, as well as the extensive language skills he picked up at Princeton and elsewhere. After suffering a while at a desk job for the agency (the CIA’s precursor), those skills get him hand-picked for a very special mission alongside terse intelligence officer Robert Furman (Guy Peace) and physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti).
As it happens, Goudsmit has inside information about their quarry: His former colleague Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who won the Nobel Prize in 1932 for pioneering quantum physics, is now in charge of the Nazis’ attempts to create an atom bomb (just as the Yanks have their Manhattan Project). If he succeeds, the Germans could win the war. Smuggled into Italy and then Switzerland, it’s the OSS trio’s task to discover if Heisenberg is anywhere near that goal. He may be lagging behind the Americans as Axis resources dwindle, or might even be deliberately stalling to favor the Allies.
But should the worst-case scenario look even remotely possible, it will fall to Berg — who’s never killed anyone before — to assassinate the brilliant physicist. Variously aiding Mo in this mission, once Heisenberg has been lured to Zurich, are a scientist-academic (Tom Wilkinson) and a shadowy Allied enforcer (Pierfrancesco Favino).
Shot in burnished tones by Andrij Parekh on attractive locations (many in the Czech Republic), “Catcher” has the moody handsomeness of old-school espionage films, and Howard Shore contributes an orchestral score that would very nicely suit the kind of trenchcoat melodrama “Catcher” aspires to be. Yet somehow the players never quite convince they have the world’s fate in their hands (Peace’s ramrod-stiff turn feels like an imitation of military bearing from old war movies, while Giamatti puts too much comedy in his scaredy-cat academic) or that they’re actually inhabiting the designated period.
More crucially still, Lewin just doesn’t have much feel for action or suspense, two things seldom relevant to his projects over the last forty-odd years. This is particularly evident in a flat sequence where our protagonists barely survive enemy fire in Italy, and again in the lack of tension where Berg and Heisenberg finally, repeatedly cross paths.
Though it all, Rudd seems subtly miscast, not because he doesn’t look like the real man (who was more a conventional athletic bruiser), but because Moe is meant to be someone who loves “hiding” and “keeping secrets.” This actor doesn’t lack depth (though it’s his first dramatic lead in some time), but his appeal is rooted in seeming so accessible and relatable — not what one needs in portraying a “walking enigma.”
Focusing on only a few years of Berg’s life (with a parting note suggesting Rodat’s scenario is considerably “fictionalized”), the movie already simplifies a complex real-life character who was apparently considered a womanizer, later developed a rep for inappropriate sexual behavior, and spent post-WW2 decades jobless, sponging off relatives and acquaintances. All we get here is that he’s ambivalently Jewish, maybe a little gay, and a nice guy (that last bit something we assume simply because he’s played by Paul Rudd). We can take on faith that he’s got a brilliant mind, albeit one he’s seldom applied with focus. But we can’t believe he’s a restive chameleon capable of becoming an assassin spy.