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Culture Documentary

The Ciesla Foundation

Moe Berg
The Ciesla Foundation

Documentary

Undercover catcher

The Spy Behind Home Plate tells the story of a highly talented but unhappy ballplayer

The Golden Age of Baseball conjures up black-and-white images of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Another player of the 1920s and 1930s is not most recognizable but is arguably most enigmatic.

Moe Berg played on five major league teams over 15 years, mostly as a catcher. But as the title of a recent documentary, The Spy Behind Home Plate, foretells, Berg wasn’t known only for his rocket arm.

Director Aviva Kempner shows how this son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants used his athletic cover to spy for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, during and after World War II. Berg was quite a catch for the OSS. He’d graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, eventually spoke 10 languages, and completed Columbia Law School while he played professional ball.

The documentary doesn’t clarify when the government recruited Berg, but in 1934, on a goodwill baseball tour to Japan, Berg surreptitiously photographed Tokyo from its tallest building with a camera he’d hidden under his kimono. The film ended up with the U.S. government.

Among his clandestine exploits, he helped Italian scientist Antonio Ferri escape to the United States in 1944, eliciting President Roosevelt’s comment, “I see that Moe is still catching very well.”

Another time, Berg listened to German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Zurich lecture, ready to shoot him then swallow a cyanide capsule himself if Heisenberg revealed he was close to creating an atom bomb. Speaking on an unrelated topic, the unsuspecting Heisenberg finished and both walked out alive.

This riveting film’s rapid-fire format of photos, clips, and nonstop narration from family members, ballplayers, and historians personifies Berg: He rarely stopped long enough for many to know him well. The personal recollections reveal only part of a complicated and talented but often unhappy man. 

Berg never married, and he embraced no religion. His dying words: “How did the Mets do today?” The documentary’s footage and storyline fascinate, but, without meaning to do so, it underscores the emptiness of living without Christ.

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Aubrey Keith/Netflix


Aubrey Keith/Netflix

Documentary

When China came to Ohio

American Factory spotlights a clash between Chinese and American work culture

When General Motors Co. in 2008 shuttered a factory near Dayton, Ohio, thousands of workers lost high-paying union jobs. Eight years later, a Chinese glass manufacturer reopened part of the plant, bringing new employment but a very different work culture. The new Netflix documentary American Factory is a fascinating and evenhanded look at the stark differences between American and Chinese work life.

Cao Dewang, chairman of the Fuyao Group, wants to establish an American presence for his glass company. After investing millions of dollars in the Dayton plant, the chairman expects productivity there to catch up with the company’s factories in China. Former GM workers are excited about their new jobs, but are quick to recall that wages were much higher in the former days. Some employees aren’t enamored of the productivity demands of their Chinese colleagues or of the pressures to take shortcuts that could endanger their health.

Fuyao brings several hundred managers from China to train and work alongside the new employees. The supervisors are largely disappointed in their American workforce. One tells chairman Cao on a plant tour: “They’re pretty slow. They have fat fingers. We keep training them over and over.” Another is surprised that health and safety inspectors consider the extreme heat of the furnace room a hazard.

Soon, some workers band together and try to form a union. Fuyao works aggressively to squelch these attempts: Supervisors threaten terminations and hire an anti-union consulting firm to intimidate workers. After firing the company’s American president and vice president, Cao hires a Chinese-born leader for the Ohio plant, hoping new leadership will reverse the factory’s mounting losses.

American Factory, rated TV-14 for some colorful language, might not be what one would expect from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. But directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert masterfully tell this story of two very different work cultures attempting to come together.

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Netflix

Jeff Sharlet
Netflix

Documentary

The Family

A lack of understanding of evangelicalism weakens The Family

The new Netflix documentary series, The Family, could have been an insightful exploration of the poisoning effects of secrecy and political power on faith. Instead, it contributes to the divisive age we live in by turning common failings into Da Vinci Code–style conspiracies and subtly suggesting evangelicalism itself is a threat to the nation.

The “family” in this series is The Fellowship, a press-shy group that ministers to government leaders. The biggest downfall of the series is that, a few brief interludes excepted, it relies almost entirely on the testimony of a single man: author Jeff Sharlet. This would be problematic even if Sharlet hadn’t built his career by suggesting the philandering pols of C Street represent a wider Cosa Nostra of Christianity. The series provides adequate proof that the Fellowship is committed to, if not secrecy, at least flying under the radar, but it reads sinister motives into the group’s behavior to such a degree it becomes laughable.

Anyone who grew up going to church in the 1980s and 1990s has heard common phrases like “Jesus plus nothing” or expressions of waiting on God for direction. These are not evangelical code language for secret plots. And because pedestrian sins like greed and adultery are apparently not enough, the show implies that Fellowship members marshaling support for traditional marriage and the sanctity of life is uniquely treacherous.

This is all frustrating because the series had ample provocation to explore far more worthwhile territory. 

When a Russian Christian sets aside the totality of the New Testament to parrot the Fellowship ideal of courting the powerful because of a single verse in Acts, we cringe from the Biblical illiteracy. 

The filmmakers rightly look askance at a positive-thinking, prosperity Christianity and the idea that any believer should have a rock-solid certainty he’s called to great leadership. But then it commits the equal error of calling for evangelicals to prove their principles with political resistance in this present era. It misses that both the resister and conspirator may sin if their foremost concern is with political power at all.

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