In a couple of weeks Paul Rudd will reprise his role as Ant-Man, playing a superhero who can shrink to the size of an insect or grow to the size of a city bus.
But he plays a very human-sized hero in “The Catcher Was a Spy,” which is partly a gripping World War II espionage drama and part a character study of an elusive man who didn’t want to be studied. The film gets what appears to be a one-night-only screening on Thursday at New Vision Fitchburg 18.
Moe Berg felt he didn’t belong anywhere. He was a Jewish man who would pass for gentile. He was an average baseball player with a first-rate intellect, nicknamed “The Professor of Baseball” for his degrees from Princeton and the Sorbonne and his ability to speak seven languages. And, the film suggests, he was a closeted gay man who managed to fool even his girlfriend (Sienna Miller).
After his baseball career dwindled to a close, Berg felt his knack for keeping secrets could be an asset to the country, and joined the OSS, the wartime precursor to the CIA. Based on real events, “Catcher” follows him on his biggest mission, to make contact with German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) at a Zurich conference and determine if Heisenberg was working on a nuclear bomb for the Nazis.
And if he was, to kill him.
Written by Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”) based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s book about Berg, and directed by Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”), “Catcher Was a Spy” takes a low-key approach. While there are some thrills, including a battle sequence and the final confrontation between Berg and Heisenberg, the tone is more understated. The suspense comes from Berg trying to divine Heisenberg’s real motives — just as the audience is trying to figure out Berg.
Casting Rudd, cinema’s Mr. Affable, as the enigmatic Berg is perhaps a perversely brilliant idea. While Rudd seems incapable of losing an audience’s sympathies, he also captures Berg’s secretive nature, the opaqueness behind the friendly smile.
“Catcher” also has a rotating lineup of fine character actors who show up in a couple of scenes for well-turned small performances. They include Jeff Daniels as Berg’s OSS boss, Wild Bill Donovan, Paul Giamatti as a nervous academic adviser to the agency, and Tom Wilkinson as the Swiss scientist who connects Berg to Heisenberg.
“Catcher” isn’t a great spy movie, and relies too much on familiar tropes of the genre, with grim-faced men in long coats and hats skulking down dark streets. But it held my interest throughout, an authentic true espionage story in the vein of a John le Carré novel with an unusual hero. Nobody ever figured this guy out.
After the war, Berg was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work with the OSS. He gave it back without explanation.