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The Catcher Was a Spy DVD Review

The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) movie poster The Catcher Was a Spy

Theatrical Release: June 22, 2018 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Ben Lewin / Writers: Nicholas Dawidoff (book The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg), Robert Rodat (screenplay)

Cast: Paul Rudd (Morris "Moe" Berg), Mark Strong (Werner Heisenberg), Sienna Miller (Estella), Jeff Daniels (Bill Donovan), Tom Wilkinson (Paul Scherrer), Giancarlo Giannini (Professor Amaldi), Hiroyuki Sanada (Kawabata), Guy Pearce (Robert Furman), Paul Giamatti (Sam Gouldsmit), Pierfrancesco Favino (Martinuzzi), Connie Nielsen (Koranda), Shea Whigham (Joe Cronin), Agnese Nano (Signora Amaldi)

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Paul Rudd had a slow and unusual rise to stardom. His first film credits were supporting roles in movies that were widely seen including Clueless and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. By the time he was in another big hit, as part of the Channel 4 News Team in 2004's eminently rewatchable Anchorman, Rudd was more likely to be recognized for a stint on "Friends" than his ripe for rediscovering '90s film work. After Anchorman,
Rudd remained focal and busy with prominent roles in an array of comedy films, in cameos, supporting roles, and as one of two or more leads in wide releases like Role Models and Dinner for Schmucks. Rarely was Rudd asked to fly solo, the rare exception being 2011's Our Idiot Brother, an indie that The Weinstein Company treated like a big studio comedy to just okay returns.

In 2015, Rudd joined the biggest force in Hollywood, Marvel's Cinematic Universe as Ant-Man. It was another solo lead turn, though one sold on superheroics, not Rudd. Although the two Ant-Man movies are near the bottom of the canon commercially, they remain profitable on a big budget and of global appeal. And yet for all the business the Marvel movies drum up, they seem to have little impact on their actors' careers. Sure, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans wouldn't be in as many movies or paid as handsomely if they weren't also collecting big paychecks as Thor and Captain America in movies selling hundreds of millions of tickets around the world. But lose the superhero costumes and doubt swallows those Chrises' movie star status. Maybe it's just the extinction of the star system, but people don't go see "that Chris Evans movie" or "the new Chris Hemsworth picture."

Nonetheless, this summer did give us a Paul Rudd vehicle besides Ant-Man and the Wasp. Two weeks before that tentpole debuted in July, the IFC film The Catcher Was a Spy opened on 46 screens in major markets. Adapted from the 1994 biography of the same name by Nicholas Dawidoff, the film directs us to the fascinating true story of Morris "Moe" Berg, who had the distinction of being both a longtime Major League Baseball player and then an American spy in World War II.

As World War II hero Morris "Moe" Berg, Paul Rudd naturally sports a fedora.

That unusual combination sounds like the recipe for a fascinating historical study, but we can tell almost immediately that the movie doubts its entertainment value. Within the first twenty minutes alone, there are two flashy scenes that we have no reason to know or believe happened: aging Boston Red Sox catcher Berg (Rudd) beating down a nosy young teammate in an alleyway and then having aggressive piano bench sex with Estella (Sienna Miller), our hero's ill-defined love interest. Soon he's sprinting full speed down a long hallway at his office job for no apparent reason.

We shouldn't need such fictionalizations. The real Berg was Jewish at a time when antisemitism was one of the key features of the world's looming conflict. The lifelong bachelor was also apparently bisexual, or at least the movie suggests that much with a homoerotic hand touch and raised, dodged questions of him being "queer." Berg's biographer merely speculated on the subject.

After some glimpses of Berg's long but not terribly remarkable MLB career (touring with Babe Ruth and stars as part of an All Americans team, being asked by his manager to retire), we find Berg's rooftop home movies taken in Japan paving the way to his hiring by the Office of Strategic Services (led by Jeff Daniels). A learned Princeton alum who speaks upward of ten different languages, Berg is soon tasked on an intelligence mission to figure out whether German physicist Werner Heisenberg (yes, Walter White's crime namesake) has the ability and audacity to harness fission for the purpose of giving the Nazis the atomic bomb.

Joined by a no-nonsense field officer (Guy Pearce) and a former Heisenberg colleague (a frumpy, accented Paul Giamatti), Berg finds himself in the middle of gunfire in Italy. Later, he ventures out on his own, accompanied by some guides, in an effort to get close to Heisenberg (Mark Strong) and potentially assassinate him if deemed to be a real threat.

"Does German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) have the ability to make the atomic bomb?" is the question on Moe Berg's mind most of the movie.

With their air of desperation, those invented opening scenes really establish Catcher as something determined not to be a boring, dry WWII spy flick. And it's not really boring. Almost no Paul Rudd movie ever is. (Maybe Diggers.) But those scenes cast doubt over the proceedings' veracity and we do eventually come to understand why such bits were added, because there's not a lot about Berg's story that's flashy and sexy. His relationship with Estella? Not significant enough to even gain mention in Wikipedia's long entry on Dawidoff's book. His baseball career? It makes for a fun, most likely made-up scene in which Berg and younger soldiers play a game amidst the rubble.

Rudd, who does not sport the unibrow the real Berg evidently did, is one of the most charming actors out there and even the entertaining Ant-Man movies have not made extraordinary use of his talents. But those talents lie chiefly in improvisational comedy. He has one funny line here: Giamatti asks "You are a jew" and he shruggingly corrects him, "Jew...ish." The rest of the time, he's a slave to the ungraceful script by "Falling Skies" creator Robert Rodat,
who twenty-plus years ago wrote Saving Private Ryan. At least Rudd has a hand in the Ant-Man script and slips some wit in with all the corny size-changing jokes and gags. Naturally, this drama doesn't have anything like that. Rudd provides charisma a lesser actor wouldn't, but he can't elevate it to an agreeable level and the film never comes close to letting him impress dramatically.

Some blame must be laid at the feet of Australian director Ben Lewin (The Sessions, Georgia), who this year celebrates his thirtieth anniversary in film and has been working in the business for nearly as long as the 49-year-old Rudd has been alive, but has yet to truly capture the world's attention.

After grossing a meager $712 thousand from theaters, Catcher (whose title allusion to Catcher in the Rye may be its most playful feature) recently hit DVD -- but not Blu-ray -- from occasional IFC home video partner Paramount.

The Catcher Was a Spy DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Closed Captioned; Extras Captioned and Subtitled
Release Date: October 2, 2018
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $22.98
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Hi-def has become so prevalent that it's now weird to see a new movie released exclusively in standard definition. The DVD's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen doesn't offer much to marvel at, with its cloudy gray visuals and unremarkable Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

Ooh la la, Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) reads a French newspaper in the dugout to the bemusement of his fellow Boston Red Sox in this deleted scene. The Catcher Was a Spy's DVD basic main menu looks straight out of 1998.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Looking straight out of 1998, the static, silent main menu whose backdrop doesn't change, holds one kind of extra under "Special Features": a collection of seven deleted scenes (8:37). They show us Berg schooling his Red Sox teammates while reading a French newspaper in the dugout, hatching a Luddite plan to truly eliminate the threat of atomic fission, and lying in Italian. There's also a bit more science delivered in Giamatti's Dutch accent.

Previews repeats the disc-opening full trailers for two prior releases under IFC/Paramount's arrangement, The Man Who Knew Infinity and Chuck.

Amidst the chaos of World War II (see the rubble in back), Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) seizes an opportunity to play baseball...because THE CATCHER WAS A SPY!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Catcher Was a Spy looks inviting: a Paul Rudd movie you haven't heard of telling a true story you don't know. But this dramatization feels dubious from its start and never picks up any steam in its attempt to turn fringe history into engaging cinema. Paramount's DVD is a basic affair that seems a good ten to fifteen years behind the times.

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Related Reviews:
Operation Finale The Man Who Knew Infinity Genius The Monuments Men The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Paul Rudd: Ant-Man Ant-Man and the Wasp Admission All Is Bright I Love You, Man | Sienna Miller: American Sniper
Mark Strong: Zero Dark Thirty Body of Lies Sherlock Holmes | Guy Pearce: The King's Speech Bedtime Stories

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Reviewed November 11, 2018.



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