Like most Special Forces guys, especially of my generation, I can’t get enough of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) from World War II. OSS was the “Greatest Generation” version of both CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) as both sprang forth from the extraordinary organization that General William “Wild Bill” Donovan built from scratch. With the help of the British, and learning on the fly, the United States had, for the first time, a professional intelligence organization and a military force that was expert in the art of Unconventional Warfare.
Donovan attracted all types of people, making OSS quite the eclectic organization. He was looking for “PhDs who can win a bar fight.” Moe Berg fit the bill to a tee. A professional athlete, Berg, although far from a star, played major league baseball for 15 seasons as a catcher, no mean feat, as well as being one of the few Jewish players in MLB. He was also a brilliant scholar and could speak 10 languages, seven fluently and graduated from both Princeton and the Sorbonne and studied law at Columbia at a time when Jews didn’t attend in large numbers.
The story of Berg who spied for America before Pearl Harbor on a “goodwill” tour of Japan with other major league ballplayers in the 1930s and joined OSS during the war is well known among the avid readers within the intelligence and SOF communities. But to many, he was an unknown. This film that came out this summer, changed that to a degree.
Director Ben Lewin, based his film off of the bio of Berg, Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994, The Catcher Was a Spy. He assembled a great cast featuring two of my favorite actors, Paul Rudd, who is fantastic as always as Berg, Mark Strong, and a very good supporting cast with Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Connie Nielsen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, who I had the pleasure of working with on a Mossad film (The Debt) and Giancarlo Giannini.
I wanted to like this film, no…I wanted to love this film, as anyone who loves seeing anything about OSS in print or film does. But it doesn’t ever reach that level. In baseball parlance, unfortunately, the film is a “can of corn.”
The film goes out of its way to portray Berg as the enigma that he was. He was an introvert, a scholar and a Jew in the world of professional baseball where those traits were in short supply. But the film takes his solitary life a step farther. Lewin depicts Berg as a closet homosexual, although there has never been any evidence that Berg was.
However, the stretch isn’t too far between being a catcher in the MLB and a spy. After all, catchers are always trying to hide their signals to the pitcher from prying eyes by putting them down between their legs. And if anyone watches games closely, they’ll put down multiple signs to throw off anyone stealing them, in a simplistic but effective code.
Berg, excellently played by Rudd, is finishing up his career with the Red Sox and is ready to go into coaching when the winds of war start to blow before WWII. Touring Japan with other big leaguers, Berg snuck on top of a hospital and filmed the harbor and naval shipyards after reading about the Japanese Empire expanding. His prewar footage of Japan’s military facilities, put him on the radar of Donovan, played by Jeff Daniels. Berg is brought into OSS in early 1943.
After doing deskwork, Berg was assigned to the Special Operations Branch (SO). He was a paramilitary operations officer in OSS that would today be part of the CIA Special Activities Division.
Later he was placed in the OSS Secret Intelligence branch (SI) on the Balkans desk. Berg parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to evaluate the various resistance groups operating against the Nazis. He met both Draža Mihailović and Josef Tito.
In the film, they touch on his next assignment. While the US is rushing forth with the Manhattan Project, the government is worried about the Nazis getting the bomb first. Werner Heisenberg (Strong), is one of the leading scientists in Germany’s quest for the bomb. While the threat is significant enough, there is some doubt about how close the Germans are. So, if they are close, Berg’s mission is to assassinate him.
He travels with another scientist (Giamatti) and a military escort (Pearce) to Zurich where Heisenberg is and he has to make a determination whether or not to kill him
Miller is cast as Berg’s long-time girlfriend, whom he keeps, like everyone else at arm’s distance. When asked point blank by Daniels if he is “queer”, Rudd/Berg answers, “I’m good at keeping secrets.”
When Berg finally meets Heisenberg, the two dance around in a nicely crafted scene where neither is willing to give much. Berg is looking for anything to confirm that the Nazis are ready to construct the atomic bomb and he’ll be tasked with killing him. While a great scene and expertly played, the film lacks the suspense we’d normally see in a spy film.
The aloofness and repressed part of his supposed homosexuality is the basis for Lewin’s assertion of proof of Berg’s bona fides as a spy. The scene where he sings the Battle Hymn of the Republic was a good one, Berg, despite his closeted personal life, is a patriot and that explains part of his motivation.
But overall, the film was too thin and it could have been much, much better. Especially with the outstanding cast that they surrounded the director with.
Berg was an intriguing character. He was intensely personal and tried to go to work for CIA after the war, but then only getting one contractor type of assignment. He never married and lived with his brother for several years before he was asked to leave, He then moved in with his sister, where he stayed until passing away at the age of 70 in 1972.
He was described as moody and snappish by his family. After WWII, he felt he lost the ability to follow his calling for his second career in the CIA. He was quoted however that, “I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court” when someone accused him of wasting his talents on baseball.
He was awarded the Medal of Freedom for his service in OSS, but he turned it down. His sister eventually accepted it on his behalf.
He was cremated after his death and had his ashes scattered over a mountain in Israel. His baseball card is on display at CIA Headquarters.
Photos: Wikipedia/IFC Films