Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Ben Lewin's THE CATCHER WAS A SPY proves classy, old-fashioned, WWII espionage fun

Based on a real-life baseball player named Moe Berg (of whom TrustMovies had never heard but is very happy to have now made his acquaintance), THE CATCHER WAS A SPY proves a surprising and welcome throwback to the days of World War II and those exciting, old-fashioned, well-plotted espionage thrillers that we rarely see any longer.

As directed by Ben Lewin and written by Robert Rodat (from the book by Nicholas Dawidoff), the movie proves a classy, intelligent, gorgeously-mounted treat.

With a spot-on production design by Oscar-winner Luciana Arrighi in which every scene appears real and right -- from the gorgeous period interiors to the bombed-out ruins in which some exciting and suspenseful combat takes place -- the look of this film seems just about perfect without ever calling undue attention to itself: every production designer's dream, I should think.

For his part, Mr. Lewin (shown at right, who a few years back gave us that wonderful movie The Sessions) also gets it all correct. He is able to direct with a firm, fine hand everything from an exciting action sequence to a philosophical discussion of murder and patriotism; from a hot 'n heavy hetero sex scene to a quiet but deeply felt suggestion of homosexual love; from a baseball game to a blunt-force beating.

While I suppose there is nothing "award-winning" here, still, what a pleasure it is to see first-class craftsmanship in writing, directing, acting, editing, cinematography and production design come together so very well. In the starring role of Moe Berg, we have that fine actor Paul Rudd (shown above and below), at last given a role that allows him to shine in ways we've seldom seen. Rudd makes a particularly believable-looking 1930s-40s character, with a face and body that's near-perfectly "period."

From what we see and learn here, Moe Berg was a very private man: a non-religious Jew who didn't even feel particularly "Jewish," evidently bi-sexual (in a time when this was anything but accepted), and a fellow who felt at home almost nowhere except in a library or on the baseball field. Mr. Rudd brings all of this to exceedingly quiet-but-felt life. He is on screen in (I think) literally every scene, which forces the rest of the excellent ensemble cast to take a decided back seat in the proceedings.

Yet, because that ensemble consists of terrific actors such as Jeff Daniels, Mark Strong, Paul Giamatti, Sienna Miller (above, left), Tom Wilkinson, Sanada HiroyukiGiancarlo Giannini and Pierfrancesco Favino (below, right), each of their roles comes strongly, if briefly, to life. (One does wish that Ms Miller might be given roles a little more important and demanding, but then this is definitely the kind of male-centric movie, in which women, if they appear at all, are simply "helpmeets" to the men.)

Yet the story is indeed a crackerjack one: a ball-playing civilian recruited into the OSS and asked to possibly kill one of Germany's finest and most heralded scientists. Lewin and Rodat begin at the climax then circle back to an earlier time, as we learn Moe Berg's history in both baseball and spying. It makes for a very good yarn; how true it is to the facts I can't say, but as we move along, events and characters tumble over each over with proper pacing and believability.

In the end, the question of the need to murder for your country is given a more-than-decent workout. In this age of drone murders (even of American citizens by the American government) and their endless collateral damage, this single important incident provides a very good point at which to look back and take stock.

From IFC Films and running a just-right 98 minutes, The Catcher Was a Spy, opens this Friday, June 22, in New York City (at the IFC Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5).  Here in South Florida, the film is playing now at the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. Simultaneously, the movie will also be available via VOD.

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