The Spy Behind Home Plate
2019, NR, 101 min. Directed by Aviva Kempner.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 19, 2019
The Spy Behind Home Plate is a documentary that should appeal to anyone with an interest in stories about the Golden Age of baseball, World War II spy missions, and unusual corners of American Jewish history. The subject of the film is Moe Berg, the Jewish ballplayer and polymath who spoke multiple languages and graduated from Princeton magna cum laude (during an era in which Jews were not welcome at that university), played professional ball for 15 years, became a lawyer, a popular star of the radio quiz show Information Please, and a spy for the OSS (the American precursor to the CIA). Berg was also the titular protagonist of The Catcher Was a Spy, a 2018 biopic about the ballplaying spy, who was played by Paul Rudd.
There’s no question that Moe Berg lived a fascinating life, although he left it to others to tell his tale. Reticent about much of his inner and private life, Berg is reanimated in this documentary through interviews with relatives, teammates, and intelligence officials. Much archival visual material, both period-setting and biographical, also assist in telling Berg’s story. Despite the abundance and thoroughness of the historical research and on-camera interviews, the film never fully completes its picture of Berg. We have an accumulation of facts, anecdotes, and conjectures about Berg, but the man who revealed little of himself to his friends and associates, and never spoke to anyone about his OSS involvement, still remains a bit of a cypher at the end of The Spy Behind Home Plate. The testimonies offer a wealth of insight into Berg’s outward behaviors and accomplishments, but none ever fully crack the essential mysteries that governed his life.
Kempner’s films (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Rosenwald) all specialize in Jewish history and cultural figures. It’s a worthy preoccupation, but Kempner sometimes has a tendency to lose the forest for the trees. The number of interviewees she speaks with can lead to occasional confusion about who is saying what. Also, too many of the reminiscences are secondhand, coming only from the mouths of adult children whose parents knew Berg. The underlying story of Berg’s cultural but unreligious Jewish identity is often surmised but rarely demonstrated with facts or definitive conclusions. That’s not such a bad thing, except that it leaves viewers with an unfulfilled feeling. Perhaps what we learn is that when we attempt to uncover the inner workings of a person who wishes to hold personal secrets close, it is folly to try to unlock the depth of those secrets without possession of a master key.