The Catcher Was a Spy

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
The Catcher Was a Spy Movie Poster Image
Well-made spy thriller has some war violence, language.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 98 minutes

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Intelligence, perseverance, courage, empathy all highlighted through story of a real-life hero who uses his intellect and understanding of people to succeed.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Berg must conceal who he is in public because of the era's social mores. But he summons the courage to compete at the highest levels and risk his life in secret missions for his country. He's not a shoot-first hero; he prefers to try to understand his "adversary." Berg's sexual orientation hasn't been confirmed outside of this film. Some discussion of homosexuality with negative connotations.

Violence

Non-graphic war violence. A one-sided fistfight is convincingly brutal, but not cruel or graphic. Shooting from a distance.

Sex

A sex scene seems somewhat rough, but the participants laugh, signaling their consent to the circumstances. No nudity. Implication of a one-night stand.

Language

Rare uses of "f--k," "f--got," and "a--hole" (the latter as a subtitled translation).

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Scenes at bars and dinner parties include drinks; no partying/excessive drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Catcher Was a Spy is based on a true story about former Major Leaguer baseball player Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), who worked as a covert operative for the United States during World War II, ultimately being sent to assassinate Dr. Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) before he could build an atomic bomb for the Nazis. There are tense situations and some war violence, but it's not graphic. A one-sided fistfight is fairly brutal, but none of the violence is glamorized. There's an enthusiastic but clothed sex scene and the implication of a one-night stand. Due to the social mores of the era, there are some negative connotations around homosexuality. Language is infrequent but includes "f--k" and "f--got." Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti co-star.

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What's the story?

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY is based on the true story of Major Leaguer Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), who played for a number of professional baseball teams through the 1920s and '30s before joining the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II and serving as a covert operative. As a ballplayer, Berg is mediocre, considered an odd duck for his intellect (he earned a magna cum laude from Princeton and was fluent in multiple languages), his religion (he was Jewish), and possible homosexuality (his confirmed bachelorhood raises questions about his sexual orientation). Berg volunteers to join military intelligence (his colleagues there are played by Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti) and eventually gets a crucial assignment: to determine whether Nobel laureate physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) is building an atomic bomb for the Nazis ... and, if he is, to kill him.

Is it any good?

This thriller is very well written and acted, with Rudd perfectly cast in the lead. But it takes at least one liberty with Berg's life that causes concern. (More on that below.) Even though he bears no resemblance to the actual, burly Berg, Rudd looks the part of a journeyman Major Leaguer of the time. And he has the depth to believably convey Berg's lively intellect and inner turmoil. When Berg learns just enough Japanese to prank his fellow players, when he surprises people with his ability in multiple languages, or when he accepts a difficult chess challenge on the fly, it all seems natural. Likewise, Rudd convincingly wrestles with the question of whether Berg should kill Heisenberg or let him live (a la The Hunt for Red October). The Catcher Was a Spy generates tension without a high body count or gruesome violence. But it's not Hitchcock-tight or thrilling; director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) wisely makes it more of an intriguing character study than getting into the nuts and bolts of spying.

In the supporting cast, Pearce is amusing as an American tough-guy soldier. Sienna Miller is sympathetic as Berg's neglected girlfriend, unsure whether he really loves her. And Hiroyuki Sanada, Daniels, and Giamatti are all memorable in supporting roles. The writing is a career best for Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan), who strips away sentimentality to highlight revealing moments. The dialogue is sharp, capturing the cadence of the time. In one exchange, Berg is asked, "You are a Jew?" He responds, "Jew-ish." But the presentation of Berg's closeted homosexuality is problematic, as it's apparently not based in fact. All biopics tweak and embroider facts, and, of course, it could be true. But presenting a big part of a real-life person's life as fact for dramatic motivation in a movie is a questionable practice. And, frankly, it's unnecessary: The real-life Berg is plenty fascinating.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Berg's sexual orientation as it's presented in The Catcher Was a Spy. Why did he have to stay closeted? Does the film seem to have an opinion about his sexuality?

  • There's no evidence outside the movie that Berg was, in fact, a closeted gay man; in fact, he was known as a womanizer and was suspected (according to the Nicholas Dawidoff book the movie was based on) of inappropriately touching children. Why do you think the filmmakers took this liberty with the known facts? Is it ethical?

  • Some war movies make killing people look cool, others make staying alive into a thrill ride, and still others terrify viewers. How would you describe this film's approach? Are all types of media violence the same?

  • How does Berg demonstrate perseverance? Why is that an important character strength?

  • Would you have made the same decision that Berg makes in the end? Why or why not?

Movie details

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