With The Catcher Was a Spy, director Ben Lewin aims for a classicism that’s undervalued in our age of the mega-blockbuster. The film’s studious simplicity initially carries a nostalgic charge, allowing us to revel in 1930s- and ’40s-era costuming while terrific character actors utter pseudo-clever dialogue that might be described as “Ben Hecht-lite.” Given that it’s relating a more or less true-life tale of espionage, the film also abounds in lush noir cinematography that suggests so many movies as to ironically suggest nothing at all, serving as an all-purpose form of Pavlovian period code.
As The Catcher Was a Spy proceeds, the appeal of the nostalgia wears thin and you may notice that there isn’t much beyond the window dressing. Lewin fetishizes procedural efficiency at the expense of expression. Each scene hits its marks—with a wisecrack, a bit of exposition, violence, or sex—before the film tidily moves on to the next similar one. Lewin’s disinterest in messiness reflects a misunderstanding of the often volatile and neurotic work of “classic Hollywood.” And this skittishness is a disappointment given Lewin’s intimate and risky collaboration with Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions.
The Catcher Was a Spy tells a simplified story of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a catcher for the Boston Red Sox who worked in the Office of Strategic Services as part of the Alsos Mission, which was partially concerned with preventing Germany from developing a fission bomb. As Lewin and screenwriter Robert Rodat have it, Berg’s unlikely role in World War II stems from his permanent sense of being an outsider. A ballplayer with multiple degrees who speaks many languages and dresses like a bookish movie star is an unusual specimen, and the film routinely and vaguely suggests that espionage is an extension of the evasions that Berg must practice so as to function in society as a Jew and a rumored homosexual. Utilizing his “otherness,” Berg travels with a band of men to Italy and Switzerland to find the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), and discern whether or not the scientist is helping the Nazis develop a bomb. The answer to that question will, of course, dictate whether or not Berg is to kill Heisenberg.
Spy narratives often traffic in an existential lack or loss of self—the subtext that gives them their emotional meat. But The Catcher Was a Spy is tepid sauce compared to even the mediocre writing of John le Carré or to a film as robust and playful as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies—let alone classics of the genre like Martin Ritt’s devastating adaptation of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Such works give us a pulsating sense of how society quashes individuals who subvert the status quo. Meanwhile, Lewin’s direction drains The Catcher Was a Spy’s plot of its strangeness, rendering every setting and every situation pat fodder for a quasi-prestigious genre film, while trapping the quicksilver Rudd in a bland sheen of morose likability. Berg’s various closeted tendencies are relegated to the stuff of mechanical character motivation and utilized as handy justification for reducing him to a cipher.