The new documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate, written, directed, and produced by Aviva Kempner, depicts the incredible true story of Morris “Moe” Berg, a notably successful Major League Baseball athlete who played for five different teams over the course of 15 seasons. However, even more extraordinarily, he also happened to live a double life as a secret agent for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. The story is one of great intrigue and complexity, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this narrative is the man himself.
With only so many adjectives in the English language, it is difficult to do justice to the personality and characteristics of Moe Berg with words alone. He was a man of abounding intelligence studying as a student at Princeton University who was also familiar with nearly a dozen languages. He had a charismatic nature of charm and magnetism, which made it easy for him to get along with anybody. Yet, he was also unafraid of taking risks and making bold choices that could potentially have big pay-offs. All of these traits made him just the kind of person sought after by the OSS.
The narrative structure of this documentary allows the audience to develop a keen interest and connection to Moe Berg’s exploits by slowly developing and describing his family history, upbringing, and personality for the film’s first 30 minutes. The fact that he was raised in Newark, New Jersey, by Jewish immigrants Bernard Berg and Rose Tashker, in the early 1900s is an impactful piece of information for the audience to understand. With the rise of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler’s horrific regime on the horizon, viewers will be drawn into the story, curious as to how Moe Berg will factor into the war. The descriptions of his remarkable brilliance and astonishing mental prowess plant the seeds for the sensational events chronicled later in the narrative. The slow burning nature of this first half hour may not quite hit home with every viewer, but those open to what these segments have to say will be rewarded later on in the story. Had the filmmakers chosen to dive right into the meat of the narrative with Berg’s ventures as a government agent, it would have felt unearned and rushed. However, this methodical pacing proves effective later on in the nucleus of the story.
Witnessing the momentous and critical historical events in which Moe Berg found himself entangled was one of the most fascinating facets of the film. He was right in the middle of many especially high-stakes missions and intelligence assignments. This even included gathering information and material on Germany’s progress with building their own atomic bomb, even as the United States worked on The Manhattan Project. Berg’s life was in critical danger on multiple occasions, and understanding the weight of these situations after the development of his backstory earlier on the film had a dynamic effect. This allowed the audience to sympathize with the man. Still, it is undeniable that certain limiting factors in the narrative style prevented how deep this connection between Berg and the viewer could be explored.
This documentary relied mostly on interviews (both new and archived), as well as audio clips and black-and-white B-roll film footage from the time period of Berg’s life. There were interviews from some of his closest friends and family members, including his older brother, Sam Berg, and also historians, biographers, and sports experts. With the available material, editor Barbara Ballow produced a magnificent effort describing Berg’s heroic journey, bringing together hundreds of clips and images in a notably efficient and tightly-constructed manner. The sound designers, mixers, and editors also added supplementary components that blended impressively with these clips. Yet, Berg unfortunately passed away in 1972, and no archived interviews from the man himself were incorporated into the documentary. A handful of photographs and film clips featuring him were woven into the B-roll, but that was the extent of his physical inclusion in the film. His story was told through the eyes of those around him, and the intense secrecy of his work as a government agent made various details murky and shrouded in mystery. These circumstances were uncontrollable, but they nevertheless took away from some of the strength of the film as a whole. Additionally, there was a great deal of background historical context which, while necessary to fully understand Berg’s situations, often detracted the overall focus of the story away from him. These shifts in the narrative’s concentration could be slightly jarring and disengaging. While the story of Berg was definitely a challenging and complicated one to tell, it is easy to feel that there might have been a more simplified way to compose this narrative.
Of course, the general intentions of director Aviva Kempner were successfully handled. Shining a light on the great courage, bravery, and heroism of Moe Berg was what she had in mind, and viewers will be able to gain a deeper appreciation for the life of a man with whom they might not be familiar. It was a challenging undertaking to depict the story of an espionage agent bound by confidentiality and classified information. This is not even to mention the fact that he sadly passed away over four decades ago, leading to very limited personal input from the subject of the documentary. Yet, despite these draw backs, the filmmakers did a fine job with this project, considering the limited substance at their disposal. Any time an American hero gets his well-deserved moment in the spotlight, those efforts should be commended.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on July 10, 2019, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2019/07/10/spy-behind-doc/*