Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’ and ‘The Third Wife’

‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’ is a documentary about baseball player Moe Berg, a remarkable combination of brain and brawn.

As a baseball neophyte, one of the first books I read on the subject was Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was a Spy. Published in 1994, Dawidoff’s biography of Moe Berg quickly became a point of fascination for ball fans and espionage enthusiasts alike – and though Berg’s incredible life has already been adequately (if not inspiringly) adapted for a big screen biopic, director Aviva Kempner’s new documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 7) will be the preferred choice for history buffs.

A remarkable combination of brain and brawn, Berg was a talented (if slow) ball player who also graduated magna cum laude from Princeton and attended Columbia Law School (a sop to his father, who really wanted a lawyer in the family). He had a photographic memory, the ability to converse in ten or twelve languages (Berg studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne), and a thirst for international travel that brought him to the attention of Secretary of State Cordell Hull shortly before a team of baseball all-stars departed for Japan in 1934.

Kempner’s film is unable to answer the question of precisely when Berg began spying on behalf of the United States, but by 1943 he was a paid employee of the CIA’s predecessor agency, the Office of Strategic Services. Dispatched to neutral territories in Europe, Moe tried to learn as much as he could about Germany’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and, after an evening spent in Switzerland with leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, was able to report that the Axis were at least two years behind the Allies’ Manhattan Project.

Those unfamiliar with his story will find The Spy Behind Home Plate reminiscent of last year’s equally compelling Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, another film revealing a brilliant mind hidden beneath the veneer of celebrity. Even if you’ve read Dawidoff’s book you’ll still want to make time for this film, which blends recent interviews with historians and baseball people with priceless archival footage of long-dead family members and teammates.


‘The Third Wife’

The Third Wife tells the story of May (the remarkable Nguyen Phuong Tra My, only 12 when the film was shot), a teenager compelled to marry wealthy (and much older) landowner Hung (Long Le Vu).

The Third Wife (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday) is an exquisite – if somewhat opaque — drama set in 19th-century Vietnam. Written and directed by Ash Mayfair, it tells the story of May (the remarkable Nguyen Phuong Tra My, only 12 when the film was shot), a teenager compelled to marry wealthy (and much older) landowner Hung (Long Le Vu). Hung’s previous spouses have been unable to provide him with male progeny; the hope is that the third time will be the charm.

Tackling difficult and sensitive subjects such as arranged marriages and child brides would be a challenge for the most skilled artist, but the Vietnam-born Mayfield – who spent her childhood in Ho Chi Minh City – rises to the occasion. Our cultural taboos regarding depictions of teenage sexuality, especially of the coerced variety, render her achievements in The Third Wife even more remarkable.

Though the film’s narrative is occasionally unfocused, Mayfair’s visual approach is impeccable: her film looks gorgeous. Featuring stunning location photography, intense, lingering close-ups, and a careful attention to color, it’s an impressive debut feature from a very promising young filmmaker.