The Spy Behind Home Plate is a new documentary film directed by Aviva Kempner. The first feature-length documentary about the subject, the movie tells the story of the Jewish baseball star Morris “Moe” Berg from his career as a catcher in the MLB to his time as a spy investigating the German nuclear program during WWII.
Berg’s story is definitely very interesting and worthy of being told, but even though this is the first feature-length documentary about his life, it is not the first feature-length film about him. A biopic called The Catcher Was a Spy was released last year starring Paul Rudd as Berg, and for the most part, it tells the same story in a much more interesting and involving way.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest issue is that it is unable to nail down what it wants to be, and as a result, the pacing is rather uneven. The film can’t decide between being a straightforward biographical documentary, a sports documentary, and a political thriller, with some additional material thrown in about Berg’s religious identity. Because the movie tries to deal with so much, it isn’t able to handle any of the storylines satisfyingly.
It’s a shame that the film didn’t go deeper into the political aspects of the story because they are actually quite interesting. The movie teases the importance of what Berg did in investigating the German nuclear program, but it doesn’t do much to explain what he did. Given that this is almost certainly the most interesting part of the story, you would hope that the film would spend more time exploring it.
That being said, the movie also somehow feels like it doesn’t include enough baseball. The film does a good job of explaining the progression of his career and why he was notable, but you will likely be left wanting to see more actual footage of Berg playing. It is possible that the footage that was available may not have been cinematic enough — catchers don’t have the most exciting role on the field after all — but it would have been nice to see some of his strategies being described in action.
One significant strength of the movie is its ability to elicit sympathy and admiration from the audience. Berg is a very interesting and compelling person because of his well-rounded personality, and the film is mostly successful in taking advantage of that. The movie could have been even more effective had it used some of Berg’s charismatic public appearances, like those he did on game shows, but the film does a good enough job as is.
On a technical level, the movie was mostly solid but nothing particularly spectacular. The execution of the film is very old-school, using the archive footage in relatively conventional ways. However, it is effective at delivering the message and material intended. Had the execution been as interesting or unique as Berg’s story, the movie would have been able to keep the audience’s attention more easily.
Overall, The Spy Behind Home Plate was a mostly solid documentary, but it didn’t quite do justice to Berg’s story. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of baseball and/or WWII, you should check this one out.
The Spy Behind Home Plate opens in theaters on May 24.