Directed by Aviva Kempner
Edited by Barbara Ballow
Running time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
Like the recent Merce Cunningham documentary If the Dancer Dances, The Spy Behind Home Plate is directed, produced and edited by women. Female documentary-makers taking on male subject matters is a fascinating perspective and one we will hopefully see more of. This documentary doesn’t particularly break new ground in terms of format, as it is a mixture of talking heads and mostly still images from the archives. The problem with making a documentary about a historical figure in the pre-television age is that there are hardly any moving images of them, making it harder for the subject to come ‘alive’ for an audience. Moe Berg is someone who lived five lifetimes within one. He had his academic and law careers, his baseball career, and then his ‘spy’ career. Due to this, the documentary is absolutely packed full of information and it is slightly overwhelming, trying to keep up with the pace of it all. Editor Barbara Ballow must have had to sift through an unbelievable amount of material in piecing this together and mostly does a good job, but it is a barrage of facts which requires concentration.
The Spy Behind Home Plate definitely shines Berg in a favorable light and it is enlightening to compare and contrast the Wikipedia page with the documentary, with Wikipedia certainly being more critical. Berg was a prodigy when it comes to academics, especially languages and does seem an unlikely figure for a baseball player. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, but his father was not religious and did not want them to live in Jewish communities in the US. At school, church and later college (all places where Berg played ball), he was singled out for being Jewish and at one point changed his name. It worked in his favor when it came to a pro career however, because some of the New York teams were looking for Jewish players to appeal to the large amount of Jewish people who could potentially be buying tickets to the games. One of these teams was the Brooklyn Robins (who went on to become the Dodgers), and then Berg later played for the Chicago White Sox and the Boston Red Sox.
Berg was a catcher and fielder who was poor at hitting and running. In 1933, he set a record for 117 consecutive games with no errors. He juggled his early career with obtaining his law degree, His father was so determined that his son would be a lawyer, that he never watched a single one of Moe’s baseball games. In 1934, Berg joined an all-American all-star team (which included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) on a tour of Japan. Berg learned Japanese on the two-week trip over and there is movie footage from the ship (some of which was filmed by Berg himself) of the team practicing on deck – this is the undoubted highlight of The Spy Behind Home Plate. While in Tokyo, Berg secretly filmed the city and later provided this footage to the American government. In his later career, Berg appeared on a radio quiz show called Information, Please in which he excelled and wrote a highly regarded essay about baseball called Pitchers and Catchers.
In 1943, Berg accepted a position with the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) and this involved trips to Italy, Yugoslavia and Zurich – where he attended a lecture with German scientists in an effort to determine how close they were to making an atom bomb. There were rumors that he was under orders to assassinate Heisenberg if he thought they were on the brink of succeeding. The extent of Berg’s operations are understandably unclear, but he seemed to play up to his “man of mystery” persona in later life by putting his fingers to his lips when asked questions. The title of both this documentary and the 2018 film starring Paul Rudd – The Catcher was a Spy are both misleading in that they insinuate that the baseball playing and spying were concurrent, which was not the case. The documentary interweaves clips from the BBC drama Fleming (starring Dominic Cooper) to demonstrate Fleming advising OSS on espionage, which is certainly a choice.
I feel for Kempner in making this documentary, because the whole thing is quite stilted and flat, due to the lack of moving footage. It is also providing an absolute whirlwind of information, which is fascinating, but you feel the need to absorb and process it before moving on to the next thing. This, unfortunately, means that a book about Moe Berg is probably easier to digest than a documentary. The hero-worship by Kempner of Moe Berg does become apparent once you read more about him and realize the ‘spin’ that has been put on his story. There is no doubting he was a remarkable man, but the audience feels at a remove from the real person because everything is being reported from secondary sources, historians etc. As a side-note, it is amusing that in every one of the talking heads, there is a little baseball-related prop strategically placed behind them to remind us who we are learning about.
There are vague references made to Berg being a womanizer. Apparently the Rudd film heavily features a woman named Estella (Sienna Miller) to give the film romantic interest, but also implies that Berg may have been gay. Homosexuality is not mentioned in the documentary, but right at the end captions come on screen telling us that neither Berg or either of his siblings ever married. The audience may find themselves wishing to know more about this and wanting to feel as if they know Moe Berg – the man - better by the end of this documentary. We learn an endless parade of facts and incidents from his life but never feel as if we have glimpsed under his skin. The Spy Behind Home Plate does do a good job of prompting the viewer to want to find out more about this man, but doesn’t completely succeed as a self-contained entity.