22 June 2007

The Good German

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Paul Attanasio

Grade: B-

Steven Soderbergh, for no discernibly good reason, was apparently desperate to prove that he could be Michael Curtiz if he really wanted to, and thusly decided to make a film by aping his style—but not so much his substance—in the process channeling not only Casablanca but other directors' work like The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, Notorious, and just about every other Hollywood movie made in the 1940's, in some way or another, into his mishmash pastiche The Good German. Soderbergh & Co. falter quite a bit in the film's first half, struggling to find the right tone in visual, performance and narrative style—to capture the '40sness while adding a modern flair—but against all odds the last half of the film starts to work, though it's never able to escape the fact that it's inherently gimmicky and unnecessary, or shake the feeling that everyone, from the actors to the visuals, looks as though they're playing dress-up in granddad's wares.

George Clooney, cut from the right old-fashioned-movie-star cloth for the part, plays a reporter for the New Republic sent to post-war Berlin in order to cover the peace conference being held in Potsdam. Tobey Maguire, overdoing it a bit in a desperate attempt to shake his Peter Parker reputation—like Leonardo DiCaprio in Celebrity, but far less convincingly so, he's a vulgar, violent, screaming prostitute puncher—is his appointed driver engaged in the black-market underbelly of the quadrisected city; coincidentally, his girlfriend/favored strumpet (Cate Blanchett) is Clooney's former, pre-war, flame, and she's engaged in some shadiness of her own involving her possibly dead husband and her own wartime perfidy. Clooney, with a bandaged ear that recalls Nicholson's cut-up nose in Chinatown (and both characters are named Jake), investigates both Blanchett's and Maguire's pasts, uncovering many layers of complex intrigue (really, what other word is appropriate?) involving several international governments. "You'll only get hurt," his sympathetic bartender (Tony Curran) warns him, "or hurt someone," but Clooney refuses to give up, monomaniacally consumed.

Even going to the questionable lengths of using the same lenses and cameras in use during the '40s—really, what's the point?—The Good German has the look down pat, including: its anachronistically hazy and soft black-and-white (which also allows for stock footage of the real post-war Berlin to be inserted for establishing shots); the full-screen format (1.37:1); the screenwipe transitions no one but George Lucas has used in fifty years; the cheekily blatant rear projection; and Howard Shore's epic, ersatz Max Steiner score. Clooney, in full-on Bogart mode even though he's really more of a Cary Grant, gets beat up a number of times and even gets a take on Casablanca's famous gin joints line: "This whole goddam country, she winds up fucking my fucking driver," he spits out to the bartender over drinks. One thing Soderbergh and friends have decided to abandon from their mimetic production is Production Code restrictions, letting the characters, and Tobey in particular, swear up a storm while even featuring an imprudent sex scene.

While Soderbergh has the visual style under control, for the film's first half he apparently doesn't understand that Casablanca is not merely a beloved film because it looks like Casablanca; as Tobey says of Blanchett, "just because you're a German doesn't make you a Nazi." The Good German aspires to be a romantic mystery, but in its first half it is neither romantic, due to Blanchett's understandably cold performance as a bitter post-Holocaust Jew laden with survivor guilt, nor mysterious, as too much information is given away too soon. Perhaps that's a consequence of there being too much information to reveal, as the script is rather gratuitously knotty, approaching The Big Sleep levels of confoundment. Soderbergh's major fault is the lack of narrative focus; the film's first third feels like a starring vehicle for Tobey Maguire with a George Clooney cameo, until it radically changes gears at the thirty minute mark. Soderbergh stumbles most egregiously whenever he wanders away from the focus on Clooney's character and his investigation of the predominant mystery; imagine if The Maltese Falcon had devoted a few reels, in their entirety, to Mary Astor or Jerome Cowan?

But once Soderbergh settles down, near about the fifty minute mark, he efficiently churns out an effective yarn whose intricacy and imitation actually become unlikely virtues; each scene gets better, culminating in a chase sequence through parade crowds that is at once derivative and worthy of Hitchcock. The lighting becomes increasingly shadowy as the story gets more sinister, and the noted liberal filmmakers insert a lot of critical swipes at war in general and America's foreign policy history specifically; there's a central conspiracy about getting Nazi scientists/war criminals to America, to get them working for our side, and the cover-up of wartime atrocity involving thoroughly corrupted military brass, while the mise-en-scene is a carefully constructed tableau of ravaged destruction, from the bombed out buildings to the physically and/or mentally injured city dwellers that pack every frame outside of the comfortable military men's offices. "You can never get out of Berlin," Blanchett bemoans, implying that anywhere she went she'd just be taking it with her, the theme offering a knock at the current situation in Iraq. ("If war is hell, then what comes after?" as the poster's tagline asks.)

But beyond the critical attitude towards America (something you'd never see from a wartime Hollywood '40s picture) and the rampant foul language, Soderbergh has added one more important alteration to the classical style that's revealingly indicative of our times; Clooney's character, unlike Casablanca's Rick, doesn't learn that there are greater forces and larger causes than himself. In fact, he sacrifices justice and truth for the sake of love and romance, a cruel reflection of modern narcissism and a charge that Soderbergh, as this project shows, is certainly not exempt from. The Good German is a self-indulgent formal exercise, but at least it works well enough, here and there, to enjoy on a superficial level.


Clayton L. White said...

Clooney is such a bland actor. He has no range to speak of, and he just banks on that smile that he so effortlessly displays. Is it me, or does Blanchett seem to get less and less interesting with each new performance? Like she's not even trying anymore.

Anonymous said...

Honestly I can't even remember the last thing I saw Cate Blanchett in, she's one of those leading ladies that just blends into all the others for me. (Perhaps a consequence of Hollywood objectification and not my own misogyny??)

Clooney, on the other hand, I just don't find bland; but maybe it's because I fall for that smile of his.