The Catcher Was a Spy (I cringe every time I see this title, but I also don’t have a better idea) tells a true story that definitely begs to be told. It is the tale of Moe Berg, a Jewish (and, according to this movie but not necessarily history, gay) Major League Baseball player who knew almost a dozen languages and graduated from Princeton, a man who worked tirelessly to keep his private life secret, and a spy during WWII who was sent to investigate Werner Heisenberg and assassinate him if it appeared he was working on a nuclear bomb for the Germans.
And for the most part, The Catcher Was a Spy Does a fine job telling this story. It’s a very down the middle-type film. Some language and an early sex scene might keep it from a PG-13 rating, but even with all that - and a homosexual lead character - this is still going to be a major family-viewing player come next Thanksgiving.
Just look at the actors involved. Rudd leads the pack, but he’s joined by Jeff Daniels, Guy Pierce, Paul Giamatti, Connie Nelson, Marc Strong, Shea Whigham, Sienna Miller Hiroyuki Sanada, Tom Wilkinson… if there’s a speaking role in this film, director Ben Lewin makes sure it's played by a familiar face, even if your parents don’t know the names. There is a warm glow to the film that, matched with its subject matter, will be irresistible to some viewers.
Rudd, however, is a curious element here. His Moe Berg is a noble, quiet type who as a point of pride keeps things extremely close to the chest, which robs Rudd of his ability to express himself and mutes his greatest strengths in the process. This is a role for a square-jawed, dignified American hero type. Without his “aw shucks” earnestness or comic irony, Rudd has very little to add to the role, and it’s difficult to fully believe him in the film. I appreciate that he’s an executive producer on the project and probably wanted to branch out, but it also feels like a bit of a miscast. If so, however, it is a very interesting miscast because I do like seeing Rudd out of his usual element. My concern is that it holds the film’s potential back somewhat.
The Catcher Was a Spy can be a little confused in other ways, too. Its early sex scene really does set you up for a harder film, but everything else is so much softer, including an extended WWII battle sequence the film never quite feels committed to. Even the spy stuff later on has training wheels attached to it.
But these are minor gripes about a film that could have been. The Catcher Was a Spy that actually exists is not a bad movie by any means. It’s a mostly safe and gentle telling of an interesting story that remains engaging throughout its respectably modest 95-minute running time. I have a strong feeling this will be one we hear more about as the year progresses.