Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A second go-round for Moe Berg -- in Aviva Kempner's doc, THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE

That erstwhile documentarian Aviva Kempner (pictured below) is making her second foray (after her excellent The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) into baseball documentaries with her newest work, THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE, which explores the life and times of Moe Berg, another Jewish baseball player -- who also doubled as a surprising multi-field savant speaking several languages fluently and then tripled as an American spy during the Second World War.

Unfortunately, the documentary follows fairly hard on the heels of last year's excellent narrative movie about the same character and time period, The Catcher Was a Spy, which proved one of those increasingly rare American independent films that actually found somewhat of an audience. Its starrier cast (with Paul Rudd playing Berg), bigger budget and intrinsically fascinating story no doubt helped.

Interestingly enough, the folk who enjoyed The Catcher Was a Spy will probably want to see this new film, too, because, in many cases, it probes Berg's life (the catcher/ spy is shown on poster, top, and below, left) in much closer detail.

While the more elusive narrative version suggested and alluded, this documentary lays in it all out in spades: what Berg most likely did on his many trips abroad (for both "goodwill" baseball purposes and for spying), how his intelligence excelled so famously on a popular radio show of the time, and how he took care to help encourage the rookie baseball players (as above) -- as well as getting to know and pal around with the "greats" like Babe Ruth (I believe that's the "Babe" at left, below, with Berg at right, on a trip to Japan).

What the documentary does not go into at all is Berg's bi-sexuality, which the narrative version covered quite beautifully and, again, allusively. All four of Ms Kempner's documentaries that TrustMovies has seen (which include Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg! and, her best work so far, Rosenwald) are primarily meant to create Jewish heroes, which indeed they do. To this end, much that might be considered as "negative" is left out. You have only to read the relatively brief Wikipedia description of Moe Berg to find some of less appealing aspects of his character.

Interestingly, Berg's remaining living family members -- as well as other talking heads (there's one above) -- speak of him here only with seeming huge respect and admiration. Yet, according to Wikipedia, Berg's brother, with whom he lived during his later years, actually evicted Moe from his home, after which Moe lived with his sister. And although, for the final 20 years of his life, Berg was unable to find any employment, you won't hear that mentioned in this documentary, either.

Via the use of archival photos and film, Kempner also offers us a nice recreation of the WWII time period as seen in America. I do wish, however, that she had not used quite so many clips from old narrative movies as stand-ins for what is being talked about on-screen.

As interesting and enjoyable -- if a tad too lopsided toward the positive -- as is this new Berg exploration, I'd still recommend you view The Catcher Was a Spy first (you can find it on home video/digital), for its rich, allusive view of this very interesting -- and very elusive -- character, before honing in on the much more detailed but standardized look that The Spy Behind Home Plate provides.

The documentary, arriving via The Ciesla Foundation and running 101 minutes, opens this Friday, June 21, in the South Florida area: in Miami at the AMC Aventura 24, in Tamarac at The Last Picture Show, In Fort Lauderdale in The Classic Gateway, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters, and at The Movies of Delray and The Movies of Lake Worth.

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