Sunday 27 December 2020

Movie Review: The Catcher Was A Spy (2018)

A World War Two drama and adventure, The Catcher Was A Spy captures wartime cloak-and-dagger antics in Europe, but the plot substance is mediocre at best.

During the war former professional baseball catcher Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) is working with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), as the Allies try to gauge Germany's progress in developing an atomic bomb. In flashback, Berg's history is sketched in. As a ball player Moe enjoyed a long career but was a misfit in the locker room. Highly educated, well-traveled and fluent in numerous languages, he maintains a relationship with Estella (Sienna Miller) and may also be a bisexual.

Once the war starts he lands an OSS position working with commander Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels). He is assigned to the team tasked with investigating and possibly assassinating German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who is suspected of leading the German atomic bomb development efforts. Moe joins the army's Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) and Dutch scientist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti) as they connect first with Italian Professor Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) then Swiss Professor Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson) to try and determine Heisenberg's role and intentions.

Based on true events, The Catcher Was A Spy is reasonably intriguing as an almost old-fashioned military spy yarn, but never reaches any emotional or cerebral heights. Director Ben Lewin succeeds on the vintage look and feel elements, bathing the action in warm yellows and browns and finding dark but glistening and handsome European settings for the shadow games. An interlude on the front lines of the Italian campaign offers suitably thrilling combat action.

But the content and characters are less interesting. Berg is presented as smart and capable but also an impenetrable enigma, and in the hands of Paul Rudd he remains an aloof and distant central character. Robert Rodat's screenplay, adapting the book by Nicholas Dawidoff, is confined to superficial notes, unable to round Berg into a properly defined person or break through to his motivations. Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winner Heisenberg's real-world career and achievements are fairly well known, compromising the tension in the core mission of Berg's spy career.

The cast is rich in talent, but the many famous names are given relatively little to do. Sienna Miller is stuck in the thankless neglected woman role, while Jeff Daniels and Guy Pearce stay close to stereotypical military men. No fewer than four scientists are brought to life by Mark Strong, Paul Giamatti, Giancarlo Giannini and Tom Wilkinson, and Strong's interpretation of Heisenberg emerges as the physicist most deserving of more screen time. Connie Neilsen appears in one scene as a haranguing dinner party guest, perhaps for the sole purpose of adding another female role.

Lewin tidies up the drama in an efficient 98 minutes, a case of decent panache hustling in search of essence.

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