The film bursts with action. But I make haste to clarify, it is nevertheless execution of a story at little more than walking pace
Morris is how his mother would have called him for lunch. But he is the strange creature known to the world as Moe Berg. A Jew(ish) boy schooled with distinction in the corridors of mainstream Christian privilege that Princeton University represents, a ferocious polyglot fluent in seven languages and proficient in another five, legacy and institutionalised catcher for the Boston Red Sox who deflects the once-in-a-lifetime offer to slip into the upper echelons of baseball management. Closet by compulsion, but otherwise committed homosexual, possibly the one regret of his maniacally secret life, for how touching the efforts to transform into the consummate lover when with his beloved Estella. And through every waking moment, a routine of life shrouded in inscrutable mystery. The Germans may believe that they almost won the war with their version of Enigma, but Moe Berg was the enigma who set out to accomplish the mission of a lifetime.
A goodwill tour by the greats of American baseball took Moe to Japan, a distant and remote culture which had inexplicably embraced, along with the outward trappings of western society, the national sport as completely as it were their own. What facet of a complex personality was caused to be opened, which prompted him with the instinct of the natural spook to dress in kimono and blend in despite his obviously white features, climb the stairs to the roof of the hospital, retrieve a camera from the billowing folds of unfamiliar cloth, and make a surreptitious film of the installations of the imperial Japanese navy? An innate patriotism waiting to be ignited, or the discerned gravity in the mutterings of impending war by a professor of history in Tokyo, or a search for relevance in a history in the making? Whatever the reason, it didn’t fail to impress General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, legend in his life, founder-chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Moe had discovered his calling.
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The film bursts with action. But I make haste to clarify, Dear Viewer, it is nevertheless execution of a story at little more than walking pace. There are no frenetic chases or broken men leaning against a wall, desperately clutching at the wound in the side and gasping out the last breath. There is no car parked in the shadow of an alley, driver at the wheel forced to reveal his location with a blast of the horn. There is no barking by figures of local authority of template guttural orders or the Alsatian who has picked up the scent, as humans and animals gradually close in on the agent whose existence will be denied, and even condemned if necessary.
It is a staid and chronological stroll of events which, therefore, requires patience. The gradual accumulation of plot, characters and story, allow it to wash over you. The mission is reduced to a philosophical conundrum. Is our spy prepared to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, head of the nuclear programme of the Third Reich? Yes, he is, but only when convinced that the great scientist considers personal ambition and glory above all, ignoring even the accumulating evidence of the horrors of Nazi Germany? But how will our spy know? Why, he will ask the great scientist a question, and the answer will reveal all.
The cerebral war, the mind games, the regrets of love, the sanctuary of the well-appointed library, these are the ingredients which can potentially keep you riveted for the better part of ninety minutes. Paul Rudd has done a good job, and Paul Giamatti, who surprises us by his presence, does not disappoint.
But let me not try and prevail upon you, Dear Viewer, and you may still heave yourself out of the depths of the sofa chair with a grunt of dissatisfaction. If that is a possibility, then permit me to add a postscript. Trawl the streaming broadcaster that you are currently on, and search for a movie set in the City of London, the heart of political power and erstwhile empire. You thought the Brits are a bunch of stuffed shirts incapable of narrating a tale faster than the stroll, complete with bowler hat and brolly, through the cool and moist green of the City, didn’t you? Well, hold your breath, because this is a tale of espionage, twenty-first century style, guaranteed to give even the Mission Impossible franchise a run for its money. It explodes in your face, and I promise you, you won’t have time to brush away the shrapnel till you reach the credits. Very tightly crafted is this story of modern terrorism and betrayal.
The Catcher was a Spy. Prime Video. Shared with us in 2021.
Also on Prime Video, Spooks: The Greater Good. A few years under its belt, but rivetingly relevant.
Dear Viewer, introduce yourself to the gamut that the genre of the spook can occupy. Something might just come of it.