The Catcher Was a Spy: A review

One of the best films of the year, The Catcher Was a Spy stars the superb Paul Rudd – more familiar to audiences as a light and lovable comic persona, or the droll Ant-Man (Ant-Man and the Wasp), in the Marvel franchise now doing boffo box office.  Here, Rudd is enigmatic, restrained, a never less than compelling presence.

Here, he is the remarkably accomplished Moe Berg, who is scooped up by the Office of Strategic Services from the field as a catcher in the Boston Red Sox in the early 1940s, to stymie the potentially terrifying development of the atomic bomb by a German scientist, played by chameleon actor Mark Strong as Professor Werner Heisenberg.

If you recall your high school physics, that is the very same Heisenberg as the originator of the Heisenberg Principle, which posits that you cannot pin anything atomic down, since the very act of studying it changes it, so uncertainty is the only certainty.  (N.B.: My slight interpretation, of course.)

Playing with an accent and a curly hairstyle that irritated my colleague at our viewing, Paul Giamatti nicely conveys the heebie-jeebies of a scientist, Samuel Goudsmit, guide-along who of necessity accompanies Moe Berg as Berg infiltrates, leads a double life, trying to reach and charm his way into the needed contacts behind enemy lines and execute his mission. 

The camerawork here is nerve-wrackingly immediate, and one empathizes with the good professor as he daintily scrambles in the shadow of Berg, sidestepping major gunfire.  Not all are so fortunate.

No-nonsense Guy Pierce, not often enough seen in our films, here plays a general, as does Jeff Daniels, all jowls and pre-empt.  Daniels struck us as slightly off, as most of the major players in this true near-biopic are lesser seen actors, so we buy into the conceits more readily.

Connie Nielson, for example, in an auburn ringleted hairstyle, plays Koranda, a conscientious socialite who objects to the murderous-regime Reichian juggernaut, bravely daring what few in those years would dare, even at a private party.  Nielson is believable to a great extent because, while she seems vaguely familiar from a few prior films, she is not such an instantly recognizable presence as Dumb and Dumber Daniels might be.

Sienna Miller plays Estella Hunt, the thankless role of left lover, never wife.

We see the all too often heavy price paid by those who sacrifice their humdrum daily lives for government derring-do.  Love is a decided catch-it-while-you-can affair.  "Private life" is never secure.

Notice must be made of the spectacular sets found and filmed for this historical drama.  Scrutiny of the end credits did not supply where, apart from Boston and Spain, filming was done, but the street scenes and the interiors are rich, almost embroidered with texture and perhaps anthropological verities.  Some people obviously did their homework.

Apart from the standout cast, the writing lends verisimilitude to the goings-on.  The script does not feed the viewer everything that's occurring on screen.  In fact, as we alluded to earlier, the man, Moe Berg, is himself still largely a mystery.  He spoke at least ten languages, was a fantastic physical specimen (catcher in the BoSox isn't chopped liver, we know), but much of his underpinnings and later history remain shrouded and untold as of now.

When we lived in one of the several countries we worked in South America, one of our earliest contacts remarked that "Americans spill everything about themselves in the first five minutes you know them." We demurred.  But in this fascinating and shivery look at the effective spycraft of one of our own (both an American and a [double-life] Jew), that is certainly never the case.

A must-see, sweltering weather or otherwise.  In fact, everyone who has seen the film and shared his view of it has repeated the same thing: people want to see it a second time to catch more of the detail, history, and background.  Including this viewer.

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