"The good old days, when you could tell who the bad guy was by who was shooting at you." - Jake Geismer, as played by George Clooney, in The Good German
I'm a sucker for this movie. Put George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh together in any fashion, and I'm there anyway, but when it was announced that The Good German was going to be a black-and-white tribute to and dismantling of classic Hollywood war pictures, to call me psyched would be to dramatically undersell my elation. It was like they were making a movie specifically for me!
Another understatement would be to say The Good German didn't get a fair shake when it came out last December. I don't know what the deal was. Sometimes a movie gets released, and you wonder why anyone bothered. The studio didn't seem to push it very hard, and critics and audiences acted indifferent to it. I didn't understand the lack of support. When I saw the film, I was completely engrossed, all the way from the old fashioned Warner Bros. logo through to the "The End" title card. Yet, the rest of the world knocked The Good German away with a casual shrug. (See also: The Fountain.)
Well, too bad for everyone else then, because they missed out. Soderbergh, working with writer Paul Attanasio to adapt the novel by Joseph Kanon, has made what is ostensibly a modern day Humphrey Bogart vehicle. Like Casblanca, but instead of Rick's den of thieves being a conglomerate of people who are essentially good despite how they make their living, Soderbergh was going to show them for the rotten creeps they really were. The Good German is like the image of a beautiful woman in an elegantly designed dress, only when you take the dress off, you discover it hides scabrous, infectious sores.
The Good German is set in Berlin after the defeat of the German army. The city is now just a patch of land waiting to be divided up between the conquering allies. Jake Geismer (Clooney), an American war correspondent, is sent to the city on the eve of the momentous peace conference between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. Against this backdrop of noble intentions, Jake finds a city that operates according to its own rules. The line between survival and self-interest is nearly nonexistent, and a cutthroat black market drives the Berlin economy. It's a bit like Vienna in Carol Reed's The Third Man: so many people are running the place, no one really ends up in charge.
As it turns out, Jake's assigned army driver is one of the main operators in this underground society. Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire) may carry himself like a corn-fed American lad, but it's a fašade. Like the wartime propaganda Soderbergh is emulating, Tully's golly-gee demeanor is just there to mask what a nasty customer he really is. He trades in stolen goods, and he keeps a hooker girlfriend on the q.t. He even offers her to Jake in what appears to be a test to see if the journalist is his kind of people. Jake refuses--which is almost too bad for him, because it just so happens that Tully's girl is his former lover. Lena (Cate Blanchett) helped Jake get information for his stories back in happier times, and the two of them had an affair. Part of why he took his current assignment was in hopes of finding her again.
Unfortunately, the past is something that Lena would rather have buried. Her late husband was involved in some deep Nazi business, and there are those who believe he isn't dead. When bodies start appearing and lies begin to dissolve, Jake starts to think that maybe those people aren't wrong--and it's no mere coincidence that he was put together with a driver who would lead him right to Lena, and thus right into the thick of trouble. Like an archetypical 1940s cinema hero, Jake is going to get to the bottom of his predicament, even if everyone else in Berlin wishes he'd just pack it in.
Though George Clooney is most often compared to Cary Grant, as the part is written, Jake is definitely the Humphrey Bogart role. Like a private detective in a film noir, he's always in the wrong place at the wrong time, always on the wrong side of the punch. Clooney definitely has the good looks to pull off the Cary Grant thing, but he's also solid enough as a presence to be Bogart. Getting this kind of role right almost requires him to portray an image moreso than a character. His motivations aren't complicated, he's the only simple thing in an overly convoluted world. For her part, Blanchett has to be mysterious and alluring. She has to keep all of her secrets hidden but let us know they are there just enough so we want to find them out. The black-and-white photography and the classic fashion suits the actress. She's luminous as Lena.
Really, the only acting letdown in the movie is Maguire. He just doesn't have the depth as a performer to give the Tully role everything it needs. He's got the apple pie part of it no problem. Tully is really just Peter Parker in a different costume. It's when the rage and the darkness are supposed to come through that Maguire can't bring it. Just like he couldn't bring out Spidey's bad side in the most recent franchise installment, Tully's lashing out is forced, a little kid swearing just to see if he can get away with it. Casting the all-American simp comes off as a misstep. It probably would have been better to go for the jockish, farm-boy type, something more like Brendan Fraser in The Quiet American.
Otherwise, The Good German is pretty much note perfect. It's a stylistic tour-de-force. Written as a pulpy potboiler, Soderbergh pulls out every trick he learned from watching Turner Classic Movies. The black-and-white photography is lovely, and the director effortlessly blends it with stock newsreel footage, both on its own and as rear-projected backdrops for the action. The score by Thomas Newman replicates the bombast of Golden Age studio pictures, baldly punctuating important moments in the narrative. There is also some modern sophistication, however, particularly in the story structure. I love how Soderbergh uses voiceover to signal a change in point of view. The first third of the movie is Tully's, and so he narrates and the camera follows him wherever he goes. As soon as we hear a monologue from Jake, however, the film shifts to walk the second third in his shoes, and likewise for the final segment, when Lena takes the reins. It's an excellent writing device, used with such ease that you'd almost miss it.
Just as it might be easy to skip over what a wonderful movie marvel The Good German actually turned out to be. Soderbergh's remodeling of the genre is something akin to what Sam Peckinpah did for the Western. The filmmaker lovingly takes hold of the pictures that inspired him, and while paying them all due respect, he looks underneath their fingernails to see the grime, the telltale signs of the dirty deeds that gave birth to the mythology. The Good German goes past homage into unexplored territory all its own.
Further stylistic conceits have also been cited as unintentional flaws in some early reviews. The slight surface grain on the film as well as the overexposed lighting--the whites are very bright, and the blacks are very black--are not errors in the DVD authoring but part of Soderbergh's technique for matching the look of 1940s films. Really, the only picture flaws I could see came in the occasional soft edges, usually apparent on the actors.