The Catcher Was A Spy

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Paul Rudd in The Catcher Was A Spy
"Berg's dilemma requires him to try and solve logical and ethical puzzles, and cannot be alleviated through the easy process of having him find Heisenberg likeable." | Photo: Dusan Martincek

What makes a good spy? If you actually talk to members of the world's various secret services, many rate Melissa McCarthy's turn in Spy as one of the most realistic film portrayals, simply because she doesn't look the way people expect and she is able to rely on her wits in situations where her training falls short. Sometimes, though, real life espionage agencies have decided that the best cover is in fact a high profile position of the sort one wouldn't expect because it would seem to make a person too obvious. A prime example of this was the US Office of Strategic Services' employment of popular baseball player Moe Berg, played here by Paul Rudd.

Berg's profile was critical in enabling him to get behind soon-to-be-enemy lines in the years leading up to World War Two, but it wasn't the only thing that made him interesting to the Office. He was also an intelligent man who spoke several foreign languages fluently; and he was bisexual. Previous spy thrillers like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy have explored the way in which taboo sexuality posed a risk to secret services because of the potential it created for blackmail, but this film looks at the flip side of that. "I'm a man who knows how to keep secrets," Berg says - and that makes him an attractive asset.

Copy picture

Though it looks at various episodes across the span of Berg's career, The Catcher Was A Spy focuses on one particular situation which could have had a huge impact on the world as we know it today - the point at which the spy was sent on a mission to assassinate renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg. The scientist was, at the time, the leading player in Germany's attempts to produce an atomic bomb, but his political views were unknown - did his work mean that the Allies could be days away from nuclear destruction, or was he secretly working against the Nazis, delaying the project and thereby effectively sabotaging it from the inside?

Heisenberg is best known for his work on quantum uncertainty, and for the contention that it is impossible to observe the behaviour of a particle without, in the process, influencing it. Ben Lewin's film, adapted by Robert Rodat from Nicholas Dawidoff's book, does not miss the ironic potential of this, especially in light of how little we really know - even today - about the hesitant assassin and his quarry. The underrated Mark Strong keeps a careful distance in the latter role, avoiding the trap of making his character likeable. Berg's dilemma requires him to try to solve logical and ethical puzzles, and cannot be alleviated through the easy process of having him find Heisenberg likeable.

A little dry in places but artfully constructed, this is a film that uses the cinematic conventions of the period to set the mood. We move through handsomely decorated staterooms and lecture halls to emerge on fog-shrouded, shadowy streets which in places recall the work of GW Pabst. The visual conventions of the spy genre are elegantly blended with this and add an element of humour in their contrast with the visual dynamics of the baseball games, both professional and amateur, in which Berg takes part. There's not much time devoted to these - it's not a film aimed at sports fans - but the stage is effectively set, and the internationalist spirit so frequently present in sport adds to the sense that the war is a tragedy for civilians on both sides.

In 2012, scientists at the University of Toronto found that Heisenberg's theory was flawed, and that by taking a new approach to measurement they could, in fact, observe a property of a particle without interfering with it. Perhaps there was always more room for optimism than there seemed in those dark days - just as, eventually, the shadow of homophobia began to recede. For his part, Rudd balances the quality of dangerousness essential to such a character with a repressed yet visible anguish at the thought of what he has been asked to do - and what it might cost the world as he doesn't. This is a thriller with a lot more soul than most, and it deserves to be observed by a wide audience.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2018
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The true story of a baseball player recruited as a spy and sent to assassinate the physicist Werner Heisenberg before he can build the Nazis an atomic bomb.

Festivals:

Sundance 2018

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