Spy Behind Home Plate, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/06/19 21:18:26
Usually you get the documentary first and then the less-impressive narrative version afterward, but that order is reversed for Moe Berg, as "The Spy Behind Home Plate" comes out almost exactly a year after "The Catcher Was a Spy". This documentary is a broader look at the life of their subject than the narrative feature, wholly avoiding and arguably repudiating what served as the other film's central conceit while focusing more on his background. Even together they probably don't tell his whole story, though this one gives you the full sweep.For those who have not heard of Berg, he was born in 1902, the third child of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and both a gifted baseball player and high-achieving student from a young age. His skill with a bat helped get him into Princeton at a time they did not admit many Jewish students; his keen intellect made him both a catcher prized for his game-calling abilities and a favorite of sportswriters. In 1932 and 1934, Berg - who already spoke ten languages and traveled during the offseason - joined other players in tours of Japan, surreptitiously filming infrastructure of the already-militarized nation on the second, with that footage reaching the State Department. When the United States joined the war after Pearl Harbor, Berg joined the OSS, and would be sent on undercover missions in Europe.
Berg's life both gives potential audiences several points of entry and the filmmakers license to travel in a dozen different directions, which can be a tricky thing - there can seem like a lot of time spent on Berg's father for someone who came for a World War II story, or too much material on the founding of the OSS for someone drawn in by the baseball. It's a documentary that is necessarily sometimes a mile wide and an inch deep, but that is also a huge part of the appeal of this story - it legitimately stretches from the religious traditions of a Ukranian village to which sort of nuclear physics Werner Heisenberg was researching, and it's a rare viewer that won't learn something new from watching it. Writer/director/producer Aviva Kempner does a fair job of juggling which threads get the most time, even if she occasionally can't help but follow a path is more too good to leave out (for instance, Babe Ruth's anger and betrayal after Pearl Harbor) than a particularly important part of a story that already includes a lot.
Another issue is that, for a guy who lived in the twentieth century and spent the first half of his life in the public eye, there's surprisingly little of Moe Berg himself to be found compared to others' recollections of him: There are a few stills, and some of what is presumably newsreel footage that includes him talking with other players, but for someone who liked talking to reporters and going to embassy parties while playing for the Washington Senators, he's always at arms length, to the point where one of the few times he actually wrote himself - his Atlantic Monthly essay "Pitchers and Catchers" is talked about but not excerpted, and there's only the briefest, driest clip of one of his appearances on the "Information Please" radio show. Maybe getting permission to use it would have been impossible, but it's a missed opportunity to actually get some sort of first-hand sense of the man. Kempner paints a picture, but in some ways it only serves to highlight how she avoids discussing the intense desire for privacy that was an important part of the other film.
Without much direct access to Berg, she builds the movie out of what she can, from other documentaries, mid-century movies, stills, and the like, and it's occasionally a bit odd to watch. With much of the film concerned with events that happened over seventy-five years ago, there are only so many people left for her to talk to, so she is often piecing together pieces of other productions and interviews done decades before. There's often not an obvious signal to indicate that she's switched from something contemporary to a bit of archive footage, and while maybe it's not strictly necessary - the information gets across - it can also highlight that the contemporary historians don't have a whole lot that's new to say about Berg that wasn't in his SportsCentury episode twenty years ago.It's still a terrific little story, though, seemingly too good to be true and always a delight to rediscover, and Kempner tells it well. It will likely sit nicely on the shelf next to "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg", her previous film about a famed Jewish ballplayer, and certainly can serve as a fine place for those who would like to learn more about one of his time's most intriguing, if mysterious, renaissance men.
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