Morris "Moe" Berg was an odd duck. The baseball player and coach, who played 15 seasons for a handful of major league teams, including the Washington Senators in the early 1930s, came to be known as the "brainiest guy in baseball."
He spoke several languages (the exact number is unclear, a mystery that was encouraged by Berg). He had an undergraduate degree from Princeton and law degree from Columbia. During his off hours, he preferred to pore over arcane museum exhibitions by himself, instead of palling around with his teammates.
A highly private person, he was, at the same time, a bit of a showoff. Berg appeared as a regular contestant on the radio quiz show "Information Please," where he would dazzle listeners with his knowledge of word origins. Despite being a mediocre player, he was a favorite of sports journalists, whom he entertained with his erudition.
He was also a U.S. government spy.
During World War II, Berg worked for the Office of Strategic Services (or OSS, a precursor to the CIA), where he joined a team tasked with determining how close Germany was to developing the atomic bomb. If necessary, Berg was to assassinate the principal architect of the Nazis' nuclear ambitions: physicist Werner Heisenberg.
All of this fascinating background was well documented in Nicholas Dawidoff's biography "The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg." The 1994 best-seller has now been made into a movie, starring Paul Rudd and directed by Ben Lewin ("The Sessions"). Ironically, the film is conspicuous not for its brio but its blandness.
Despite the colorful character at its center, and a likable if somewhat impassive performance by Rudd, "The Catcher Was a Spy" is a dutiful laundry list of a biopic, ticking off boxes in Berg's career — brainiac, athlete, loner, secular Jew, secret agent and, as the film strongly suggests, closeted gay man — without ever shedding light on what makes him tick.
Berg's sexuality will be the source of filmgoers' greatest frustrations, since "The Catcher" brings it up, only to strain to make narrative sense of it. There's the overly on-the-nose dialogue, in a screenplay by Robert Rodat, that suggests that Berg's gayness made him a better spy: "I like to hide," he tells a Japanese man (Hiroyuki Sanada) with whom he may or may not be flirting, during a prewar trip to Japan for an exhibition game. Later, in response to a direct question about his sexuality from his OSS boss (Jeff Daniels), who notes, with vulgarity, that he doesn't care about whom Berg sleeps with, Berg replies, coyly, "I'm good at keeping secrets."
The film's fine supporting cast features, in addition to Daniels, several solid performances, including those by Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson and Giancarlo Giannini as celebrated physicists; Guy Pearce as Berg's gruff Army handler; Sienna Miller as his frustrated girlfriend; and Mark Strong as Heisenberg.
As for Heisenberg, the film's central mystery revolves around how Berg will determine whether the scientist, who has so far not managed to build the bomb, is merely incompetent or, as a potential Allied sympathizer, has been deliberately dragging his feet. Early in the film, in scenes set during Berg's career with the Boston Red Sox, it's hinted that our hero has some kind of sixth sense about people. "I just knew," he says, when a teammate asks him how he figured out what an opposing player was about to do.
Despite sterling performances, "The Catcher Was a Spy" ultimately loses its luster in the murk surrounding the man it calls a "walking enigma." Who really was Moe Berg? The man who, it is said, liked to smile and place a finger to his lips when asked about his life as a spy, probably wouldn't tell you. Perhaps it's fitting then that this movie, however frustrating, doesn't, either.