A common criticism often heard in reviewing documentaries is “it’s more a Dateline segment than a movie;” even good investigative journalism does not in itself make a movie. It might be worth a twenty-minute watch on T.V. as an extended news story, but a real movie, especially one that we go to see in a theater, has a different set of qualifications. Sometimes “advocacy documentaries” can be forgiven their school-bookishness because the subject is so urgently relevant; their social or political importance overrides their artistic mediocrity. But how do you justify The Spy Behind Home Plate, written and directed by Aviva Kempner? This documentary, in theaters now, is more of an answer to a Jeopardy question than it is a movie. Or maybe it’s an entire Jeopardy episode – as chock full of rapid-fire bits of quirky trivia as it is. But Helen is Highly Reluctant to recommend this as a movie or even a Dateline news story.
I can give you the blurb from the press release: Morris Moe Berg was an enigmatic and brilliant Jewish baseball player turned spy. Berg caught and fielded in the major leagues during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s, but very few people know* that Berg also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), spying in Europe and playing a prominent role in America’s efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during WWII.
* Very few people beyond all those who read the New York Times best-selling book on the subject, or saw the feature film.
As intriguing as that description might seem, Kempner does not even begin to deliver a compelling story. Beyond sensationalizing the overt oddity of the facts, this film feels like Kempner had a thick stack of research material that she handed off to an editor and figured people would be too overwhelmed by the flood of detail to notice that she forgot to direct the movie. It really does remind me of Jeopardy in that it’s all answers and it seems the audience is expected to supply the questions or the relevance or the reason why we should care.
And in fact, there is already a much-better biographical film, starring Paul Rudd, that tells this story — The Catcher Was a Spy, based on a best-selling book of the same name. So what exactly does Kempner think she is adding to this historical tale, other than her own name?
Oddly, this is Kempner’s second documentary about a Jewish baseball player. Her previous film was The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about a Detroit Tigers slugger who combated bigotry by becoming baseball’s first Jewish star. Variety called the film, “good-natured” and “a natural for broadcast outlets.” Not exactly a ticket-seller. The New York Times called it “valuable as history,” despite its “flaws.” I did also see one of Kempner’s earlier efforts – Rosenwald (2015); it was well-researched and dry and rather pointless. I mean, it seemed like it was a thin but worthy chapter that had fallen out of an old history book and gotten lost. So, kudos to Kempner for retrieving it and putting it back on the shelf. But that doesn’t make it a movie.
Why do I feel so annoyed by this pallid little film that has found its way into actual movie theaters? It’s the smugness of calling yourself a writer/director when you are not especially talented at either — the pretense of being an auteur. And it’s taking up space from something better. There are so many excellent and powerful documentaries these days; it’s the heyday of documentaries, and many are truly works of art. It’s time for the hacks to step aside. There is too much great stuff to see to waste our energies on films like this one.
Remember OJ: Made in America, the five-part ESPN documentary? How much did we all not care to see that movie? Didn’t we all think we had already seen way too much of that drama when it played out in real time not that many years ago on national TV? But all you had to do (or should do now, if you didn’t see it in 2016) was watch fifteen minutes of the first part before you were hooked and knew that this was something much bigger and much more meaningful than you could have imagined. That’s what a talented filmmaker does — carves out a story from the mound of facts and reveals some deeper truth, rather than just throw information at you. Made in America (not to be confused with the other OJ films) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and was theatrically released in NYC and Los Angeles, then debuted on ABC in 2016 and aired on ESPN. It received critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The Washington Post called it “a towering achievement.” I bring that up here because that’s the perfect example of a sports-related story about a complicated man that ultimately became a historically significant and socially and politically relevant story that had soul-shaking impact when it aired. That’s what a great documentary does. Just saying.
Kempner’s bio states that she is an American filmmaker, born in Germany, whose documentaries investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor and her father a US army officer. Aviva is an activist for voting rights in D.C. In an online interview I read that she got her love of baseball from her father. Well… maybe PBS would want to run a biographical miniseries on Jewish baseball players? Aviva, do you have one more? Otherwise, maybe you should get a new gig. I would suggest that your own life story might make a good autobiographical film, complex and unusual as it seems, but you don’t quite have a knack for finding the heart in your characters or the pulse in their stories. You seem to enjoy historical research. Have you given the people at Jeopardy a call?
For three recommendations of recent, high-quality historical/social/political documentaries, check out our “Freedom Films” article. It includes a film that offers truly under-appreciated information about German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who founded Blue Note Records in New York in 1939 — the most important record label in the history of jazz and also a major contribution to civil rights in this country.
For a review of a documentary that is a true work of art and is so much more worthy of space in a theater, read about Our Time Machine.