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Paul Rudd plays it cool in unusual and effective World War II spy drama

Paul Rudd, left, plays Moe Berg, a one-time Boston Red Sox catcher turned assassin, as a cool customer, quite unflappable and quietly brave.
Paul Rudd, left, plays Moe Berg, a one-time Boston Red Sox catcher turned assassin, as a cool customer, quite unflappable and quietly brave. IFC Films

From the “Amazing But True (sort of)” file comes “The Catcher Was a Spy.”

In 1944, Moe Berg, a one-time catcher with the Boston Red Sox, was sent to Zurich, Switzerland, by the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) with orders to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, a top German scientist working in the Nazi program to develop an atomic bomb for Hitler.

It’s true. It happened.

Building on the basic facts of the episode, director Ben Lewin (working from a script by Robert Rodat, based on a 1994 biography by Nicholas Dawidoff) has crafted a spy story that’s heavy on the atmospherics. Down the glistening, rain-soaked, night cobblestone streets of Zurich (Prague stands in), shrouded in yellowish mood mist, goes Berg (Paul Rudd) in trench coat and gray fedora, .45 automatic in hand.

There is, however, more than mere mood to the movie. It’s an absorbing character study of a most intriguing man.

Berg was hardly your typical ballplayer. A graduate of Princeton and Columbia Law School, he spoke seven languages and was a genuine intellectual. He gained a measure of national fame as a whiz at answering challenging questions on a radio quiz show.

In the movie, he keeps his private life very private. In those deeply homophobic times, his status as a single man leads to questions regarding his sexuality. OSS chief Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Daniels) demands to know whether he’s a homosexual. Berg responds calmly, “I’m good at keeping secrets,” a key quality for a spy. Donovan hires him.

The fact he’s involved in a torrid affair with a beautiful woman (Sienna Miller), and repeatedly confesses he deeply loves her, makes easy categorizations as to his sexuality impossible.

He’s an enigma, and Rudd plays him as a cool customer, quite unflappable and quietly brave.

It’s bravery without blinders. He’s willing to shoot Heisenberg (Mark Strong), but he needs to be sure that the scientist is indeed truly dedicated to successfully developing the bomb. Berg’s study of the scientist gives him reason to question whether that is in fact the case.

Rodat’s script invokes Heisenberg’s famed uncertainty principle by having a character claim “we live in eternal uncertainty,” and that uncertainty raises the moral stakes.

Berg is a thinking man’s assassin and the movie turns on the question of will he or won’t he pull the trigger. The incredibly tense scene in which that question is answered is the high point of this unusual and effective spy drama.

The movie will be playing Tuesday only (Sept. 11) at the Grand Cinema, 606 Fawcett Ave., in Tacoma.

The Catcher Was a Spy

3 stars out of 4

Cast: Paul Rudd, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson

Director: Ben Lewin

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: R for some sexuality, violence and language

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