Ignore the Critics: The Catcher Was a Spy is Good



Directed by Ben Lewin

IFB Films, 98 minutes, R (milder language and even milder sexuality)






The Catcher Was a Spy made less than a million dollars. I was in good company by missing it in the cinema. I also skipped it because the reviews were pretty bad. News scoop: The reviewers are full of crap.


The movie follows Moe Berg, an ex-major league player who spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA—during World War Two. Some of the film is Hollywoodized, but reviewers called it bland, unconvincing, and lacking in action. Guess not enough things blew up! The title is an obvious play on words, but the tale itself is true.


Berg (1902-72) was a journeyman catcher for five teams between 1923-36, the last of which was the Red Sox, for whom he also coached during 1940-41. He was a journeyman for a reason; his career batting average was a paltry .243 (yeah, I know, that would make him a superstar today!) with little power. Teammates called him “professor” because he graduated from Columbia Law, spoke seven foreign languages fluently, several more passably, and starred on the radio show Information, Please. Berg kept his own company and his private life was carefully guarded.  


Berg was also Jewish. Contrary to myth, Major League Baseball (MLB) did not discourage Jewish players and there were more than Berg and Hank Greenburg. They did, however, suffer from the widespread anti-Semitism prevalent in American society. When the war started, Berg felt it his duty as a Jew to stop Germany, even though he was a thoroughly secular agnostic. At 40, he was fined to desk jobs until he was tapped by the OSS for a dangerous mission.


The film picks up Berg (Paul Rudd) at the end of his baseball career and provides telescoped background (some of it speculative) before he caught the attention of OSS head Brigadier General “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Bridges), who placed him under the command of Robert Furman (Guy Pearce), who was also working on the Manhattan Project. Berg and contacts that included physicists Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), Paul Sherrer (Tom Wilkinson), and Edoardo Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) were tasked with luring Werner Heisenberg to Zurich to ascertain whether the Germans were close to developing an atomic weapon or was secretly stalling the program.


If necessary, Berg was authorized to assassinate Heisenberg. If that name rings bells, he was a Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist who also developed the uncertainty principle. Don’t ask me to explain it; I’d have a better shot of decoding quacking ducks than quantum physics. Suffice it to say there was a critical need to derail Germany’s development of a fission weapon.


Oddly, numerous critics ignored what was really improbable in the film and seemed to think the true stuff was made up. There is a scene in which Berg plays ball with American GIs who have just taken an Italian town from the Nazis. One soldier recognizes Berg, who proceeds to hit a moonshot over the ruins of a multi-storey building. That’s unlikely. Who, in the pre- television age, would recognize a marginal player? How does a guy who hit six homers in 13 years tattoo a tape-measure blast?


Rudd’s performance was labeled passive and laconic. Umm… he was a spy, a profession known for keeping things close to the vest. Nor did critics jump on made-up inferences that Berg was gay or bisexual, yet lambasted him as unconvincing. What did they want, a teary bathhouse confessional in the arms of his male lover? Not that I care one way or the other, but there is no evidence that Berg was gay. In the film we watch him bend Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) over a piano for sweaty sex. I suppose it’s feasible the tasty Miller would tempt someone of any persuasion, but Huni’s brother said she was the love of the bachelor Berg’s life. Rumors he was homosexual say more about mid-century-not-so-modern gender roles than Berg’s actual preferences.  


For the most part, the acting is solid in The Catcher Was a Spy. Giamatti perhaps chews too much scenery, but that’s what he does. Mark Strong is superb as the icy-veined Heisenberg, and I personally found Rudd’s performance letter-perfect in capturing the enigmatic Berg. This film will never be considered a classic, but it’s a good film to watch as the MLB season winds down.*


Rob Weir


  * I caught it on Kanopy.  


September Music: Nourallah, Wiscons, Wiley and More


You have to be a Texan like Salim Nourallah to make a record about a windblown West Texan locale, but Nourallah is the proverbial real deal. See You in Marfa is a 5-song EP inspired by Marfa, a smalltown best known for its spooky atmospheric lights that the predisposed have linked to aliens or paranormal phenomena. The carrot-topped, sweet-voiced Nourallah turns the title song into a love song to both place and an unnamed other. He has an uncanny ability to mix voice and instrumentation in perfect balance and to blend his optimism with just enough edge. “Not Back to Sad” sounds as if it is a cheerful outtake from The Beatles White Album. So does “Hold on to the Night”with its sensible advice to hold on to the night before you give it away. You might expect contentment songs from a guy whose album label is called Happiness, but “Hate the Waiting” has some barbs hiding behind its gentle harmonic wrapper: Hate what you’ve become....  Nourallah doesn’t require a lot of pyrotechnics to impress. Great songwriting–usually in conjunction with his British pal Marty Willson-Piper–does the trick. ★★★★




A lot of people experience midlife crises in their 40s but instead of wallowing, Indiana-based musician Brett Wiscons threw himself into the song that became a project: Late Bloomer. He’s a Midwestern guy specializing in “heartland rock,” a melange of country, rock, and folk as one might expect from one whose musical heroes include Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Wiscons has a voice that gets labeled “whiskey-soaked” and likes to go big in an arena rock way, though he prefers an acoustic guitar and relies on his friend/co-writer/ producer Thom Daughtery to lay down blistering electric noise. Wiscons gets political on “When You Can’t Breathe,” which is drenched in ominous ambience appropriate for a song based on the murder of George Floyd. “Vertical City,” inspired by the emptiness of New York during the pandemic, invokes heavy country rock. Wiscons also accentuates the positive, as he does on the title track–a semi-autobiographical offering whose central character see analogies between himself and late blooming nature. He teams with Anne Balbo–a stronger harmony voice than a lead–on “Don’t Be the One Who Got Away,” which has a pop vibe, and celebrates parenthood on “Let’s Do It Again.” This is a solid record, though in Wiscons (and especially Balbo) often pour on more vocal power than is needed. Such moments run the risk of overkill and would be more effective with healthy doses of contrast. ★★★




Virginia’s Jon Tyler Wiley draws comparisons to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen but he’s swampier and has a grittier voice than either of them. His newest album The Longing is a character-driven, genre-defying collection of tales and situations in modern America. When he sings “Wolves” atop its rock-and-stomp instrumentation, we know he intends to warn us about something other than four-legged critters. Who? Figure it out! It's easier to see Jimmy as a victim of American masculinity in “St. Mary’s River.” This one earns Springsteen analogies in its crank-the-volume storytelling, but “Whiskey” is an atmospheric folky confessional. It tells of trying (and failing) to drown sorrows and crumbling relationship in glasses of fermented fire. Wiley follows with the kick-butt “Just Another Heartbreak Song” in case you didn’t get it in the previous offering. Wiley goes full country balladeer on the waltzy “LaredoTexas Oil Well Blues,” and turns up the funk on “Cake.” The album’s first single was the gritty bring-the-noise “Wannabe,” but I think the song that will first grab most listeners is “He Knew Me,” a litany of personal musical heroes–Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty–that he never met, yet spoke to him in ways erstwhile role models never could. ★★★ ½ 



MP3 can be an unforgiving format. It compresses vocals, which is good news for bad singers like me, but can make chanteuses sound like mush. Alas, this is on display on Other Way Home, the debut album of Toronto’s Meredith Lazowski. One listen to “Prairie” or the minimalist bluesy title track will send you searching for a lyrics sheet. She’s been a visual artist and designer and I’d be the last person to dissuade anyone from following their bliss, but I just don’t think Lazowski has a strong enough or clear enough voice to sustain a musical career without making major adjustments in approach and repertoire.



Ale Giannini performs under the stage name of El Italiano. He’s an Argentine nouveau tango composer and comes by it naturally; his grandfather was a respected Buenos Aires tunesmith as well. El Italiano is cut from different cloth in that his Cross A La Mandibula reflects today’s mashable culture. Though you can discern the roots, his music is as much dubstep as tango, and his vocals tread the boundaries between drama and melodrama. “El CampeĆ³n Jacinto Chiclana” could be something from a Baz Luhrmann production. “La Primavera” is Italian for springtime, but sounds North African with accordion backing. “Toro” certainly captures the sanguinary thrill of a bullfight, though there’s nothing particularly Spanish or Argentinian about the melody.  Giannini isn’t my cup of mate, but he might be yours.


Rob Weir



New Post-Apocalypse Novel from Emily St. John Mandel




By Emily St. John Mandel

Knopf, 226 pages.





Readers of Emily St. John Mandel know that she has an affinity for considering a post- apocalyptic world. Sea of Tranquility is such a book, one with a bit time travel thrown in to heighten our interest.


Her tale is told in eight parts and takes place in various years during the 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries. A book from 20th century novelist Olive Llewellyn contains this quote: "No star burns forever." Many of her future readers assume it’s original to her last novel Marienbad. Nope; it’s from Shakespeare. This is one of several sly jokes Mandel sneaks into her text. Last Year in Marienbad was an avant-garde 1961 film directed by Alan Resnais and involves a situation that might or might not have occurred. The film considers whether a man and a woman have or have not conducted an affair; in Mandel’s novel different sorts of uncertainties prevail.


Is something amiss with the timeline? People in various places and time periods hear a whooshing sound, strains of a melody played on a violin, and report flashing lights punctuated by darkness and the sensation of viewing a quick video clip. The troubled star, though, is Earth and most people in the future live in various off-world colonies, first on the Moon then further out in the solar system. There are still humans on Earth, but it was ravaged by a 21st century pandemic. Mandel never names the plague, but given that parallels are drawn to the 1918 Spanish flu, I think we know Mendel's target. Add a subplot about Ponzi-like financial malfeasance and you can probably reconstruct Ms. Mandel's worldview. The book’s title is another small joke. You might remember that, in 1969, the Sea of Tranquility was the location on the Moon where Neil Armstrong became the first human to tread upon its surface.


Is there really something wrong with the timeline? Well, the best way to find out is to send Time Institute volunteers into the past and future to investigate and report back on the anomaly. This comes with built-in danger, namely the butterfly effect, a scenario that postulates that even a small change in an environment can have chaotic, even disastrous, repercussions. Or maybe not. In a chapter titled "Last Book Tour on Earth," for instance, Llewellyn has traveled from Moon Colony Two to Earth to talk about her new novel, Marienbad. Unbeknownst to her, she will die three days later. What would happen if she didn't? Would it really matter?


At the heart of Sea of Tranquility is Gaspery Jacque-Roberts, a perpetual n’er do well. He worries his sister Zoey, a serious Time Institute researcher. Will Gaspery find himself as a time traveler? Yes, but probably not in ways you would imagine.


Mandel’s novel takes us off-world, but also to Ohio, Oklahoma City, and Vancouver Island. As Olive posed it in Marienbad, "What if it always is the end of the world?" More ominously, what if the world has ended and those who perceive themselves as living beings are trapped in a simulation of some sort?


That last idea is hardly unique to Mandel. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. readers might recall that he placed the character of Dwayne Hoover in such a scenario in Breakfast of Champions. Hoover concludes he is the only sentient being on the planet with free will and that he is merely an experiment on the port of the Creator to see how he will respond to various stimuli.


Hoover was crazy. Is that what’s going on in Sea of Tranquility? Far be from me to reveal the answer. If you like good sci-fi, excellent writing, high fantasy value, and can tolerate some slippage upon well-traveled futuristic turf, this is the book for you.


Rob Weir