2018 | DIR: BEN LEWIN | STARRING: PAUL RUDD, MARK STRONG, TOM WILKINSON, CONNIE NIELSEN, JEFF DANIELS, GUY PEARCE, PAUL GIAMATTI, SIENNA MILLER, PIERFRANCESCO FAVINO, GIANCARLO GIANINI, HIROYUKI SANADA, SHEA WHIGAM | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
And so, Moe Berg leaves behind his very odd relationship with Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) and with the aid of intelligence from science boffin Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti) and the support of a gung ho army officer, Captain Furman (Guy Pearce) he is smuggled into Switzerland via war torn Italy and convinces Heisenberg’s colleague, Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson) to arrange a meeting after Heisenberg’s lecture there. Berg’s moral dilemma that sits at the heart of this story is whether or not Heisenberg might actually be sympathetic to the American cause and, if he is, should Berg ignore his mission and let him live.
See what I mean?
Hands down, this is a great story with a cracker of a cast, a solid director in Australian ex-pat Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance, The Sessions, Please Stand By) and a seasoned screenwriter in Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot) working from Nicholas Dawdidoff’s biography of Moe Berg.
So why isn’t it a truly great movie?
That's certainly something that perplexed me as I watched this film. It has an intriguing premise with a provocative quandary at its core, some very good performances (most notably from Rudd and Strong), and some quite suspenseful scenes (the battle sequence in Italy where Furman must get Berg past the German squad defending the town where their contact Professor Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) lives is gripping and expertly staged). So why does this movie come off feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts?
Perhaps it’s the string of high-profile cameos that is ultimately frustrating in the way it tantalises us with some great actors who are there and gone on the blink of an eye. Perhaps it’s the fragmented story that precedes the main game of the confrontation between Berg and Heisenberg that undermines the potential for a more powerful, cohesive through-line. Perhaps it’s that Ben Lewin’s television background that seems to tame the telling of the story so that feels more like a telemovie than a feature (Lewin’s feature film career has been punctuated with stints on the mini-series The Dunera Boys and series-TV like Rafferty’s Rules, Sea Change and even Ally McBeal).
Or, perhaps the answer lies in the impenetrable character of Moe Berg. He’s a bit of an enigma, depicted here as bordering on genius, bisexual (something that’s been disputed), uncomfortable with intimacy, capable of sudden acts of violence, and a well-known, if not celebrated, baseball player. There’s a lovely scene where, during his spy training, he’s drawn into a friendly baseball game with a group of soldiers and is eventually recognised and feted by them for being part of the great American pastime. But even in this most human of moments, we still don’t get
to see inside his character and so, despite Rudd’s best efforts, the enigma of his character is never revealed enough to us to fully warm to him and that’s a problem when he’s the engine of the story.
The film is nicely shot by Andrij Parekh, has great production design by Luciana Arrighi and a Howard Shore score to boot, which should all come together to be the icing on the cake. But it doesn’t. In the end, the most frustrating thing about this film (to me, at least) is that there is no single reason that serves an as impediment to it rising above the pack and yet, it remains an entertaining, informative but not entirely satisfying experience. I’m not sorry to have seen it. I’m really happy to know this fascinating story that I’d never heard before. I just wish I felt like recommending it more forcefully. I guess sometimes, despite having great ingredients, the cake just fails to rise.