THE CATCHER WAS A SPY (2018)

June 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. World War II. Baseball. Spies. A true story. Assemble all those pieces and you have Morris “Moe” Berg. Director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) brings the fascinating story to the big screen with Robert Rodat’s (Oscar nominated for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) screenplay adapted from the 1994 biography “The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” written by Nicholas Dawidoff. This is neither your typical spy movie nor your typical baseball movie.

Background information is provided by pre-movie title cards: in 1938 German scientists split the atom for the first time, ushering in the nuclear age; renowned German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel Prize winner) was charged with building an atom bomb; the United States responded by sending a baseball player to assassinate him. It’s 1944 Zurich and two men exchange uncomfortable glances across a dimly lit room.

We then flashback 8 years to see Moe Berg utilizing his gut instincts to survive as a veteran journeyman catcher for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. We later learn his sixth sense is not limited to the baseball diamond, and is used in situations much more important than whether a baserunner is stealing a base. Growing up Jewish, Berg had always been somewhat of an outsider, admitting, “I don’t fit in.” In baseball, they called him a walking enigma. Educated at Princeton, Columbia and Sorbonne in Paris, Berg spoke several languages, had a ‘fake’ wife, was a regular on quiz shows, and was constantly followed by insinuations of homosexuality … though he only admitted to being good at keeping secrets.

Berg’s is a truly fascinating story, but unfortunately Paul Rudd is a bit overmatched in the lead role. He just doesn’t quite have the dramatic acting chops to convey the intellectual depth of the man. However, the rest of the cast is stellar: Paul Giamatti (as Samuel Goudsmit), Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong (Heisenberg), Sienna Miller, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels (as William J Donovan), Tom Wilkinson (as Paul Scherrer), Giancarlo Giannini (a 50+ year career), and Shea Whigham (as Joe Cronin). Many of these are little more than cameos, and the choppy feel of the film’s flow prevents us from ever really connecting to characters.

An extended battle scene volleys from intense and well-filmed to slightly comical as Mr. Giamatti is forced to run and dodge bullets. The look, tone and color palette of the film is quite similar to Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (another true story), though this current one pales in comparison, as director Lewin presents it as a “will he won’t he kill the guy?” scenario. Berg’s story is likely more suited to documentary treatment, as his time with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, later the CIA), resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Freedom. Upon his death in 1972, Newsweek’s headline read “3rd String Catcher, 1st String Spy”.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE SESSIONS (2012)

November 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1997, director Jessica Yu won an Academy Award for her documentary short entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was a poet and journalist who attended Cal Berkeley. His story reaches the level of remarkable once you understand that he suffered the harsh effects of polio, was almost entirely paralyzed, and was confined to an iron lung for all but 3-4 hours per day. Director Ben Lewin (a Polio survivor) has taken a specific part of O’Brien’s story and turned it into a very entertaining and intimate film that explores the challenges faced by the disabled in leading a full and sexual life.

In 1990, O’Brien had an article published: “On Seeking a Sex Surrogate“. It detailed his desire to overcome the obstacles and experience a sexual relationship. He did so by working with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley based sex surrogate … also a wife and mother of two. This is the very touching, and quite funny, story of how Cheryl (played here by Helen Hunt) worked with O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) to overcome his fear and anxiety. These sessions occurred after O’Brien “cleared” his plan with his Catholic priest (William H Macy).  All three of these actors deliver, and Hawkes is especially fascinating as his voice and eyes must convey all emotions.

This story is as frank and honest as you might expect, and it avoids sinking into Hollywood sentimentality for the sake of the story. The truth is plenty powerful. O’Brien’s caregivers are played progressively by Rusty Schwimmer, Annika Marla and Moon Bloodgood. Cheryl’s husband is played by Alan Arkin and Robin Weigert plays Susan, the woman with whom O’Brien had a loving relationship until his death in 1999.

There are some similarities to the wonderful film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this story and these characters are much more accessible to the viewer … more in line with this year’s highly recommended The Intouchables. These are people with whom we care about and connect. It’s a vivid reminder that living a full life regardless of one’s constraints should always be the goal. Incidentally, Cheryl still works as a surrogate these days … at age 68.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are inspired by the true stories of remarkable people OR you just want to see Helen Hunt get nekkid.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are uncomfortable watching an adult come to terms with sexuality in spite of the obstacles stemming from his disability.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy2y7UIpgP4