The Good German
The Good German has star power, high style and plenty of complexities. This is why we go to the movies.
German is the sort of classic war story. At the end of World War II, American troops come to Germany to start prosecuting Nazi war criminals. Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire) is assigned to drive military journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) around. Tully seems like a nice enough guy, but when he starts asking for favors, his shady side comes out. He has a mistress, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), who he wants to get out of the country before the trials start. Even though she's Jewish, she may have been involved in an atrocity or two. So desperate is Tully that he offers to give Geismer a night with Lena as payment. Geismer investigates to find out what the big deal about Lena is and uncovers more and more secrets on her side and his own military's side. Turns out Lena's husband is missing and both the Americans and Russians want a piece of him. Was he a good German? More importantly, is Geismer falling for the married mistress? There are lots of characters to keep straight but it's a solid mystery with plenty of thrills, and forbidden romance between some of Hollywood's best looking people.
Director Steven Soderbergh decided to make The Good German a throwback to the style of 1940s Hollywood. This means the actors had to adjust their modern sensibilities to the way actors acted back then. It's very theatrical and heightened, but everyone does a good job of maintaining their individually, not just mimicking an older art form. Maguire stands out the most, playing a really nasty guy for the first time in his career. Part of it is the script, which has him verbally and physically abusing his lover and others. But Maguire relishes Tully's bitter cynicism and violent streak in an electrifying way. Blanchett does a solid German accent and makes Lena a tragic survivor. She's practically a shell of a woman by the time the movie begins, revealing more and more of her pain as the mystery unfolds. We sympathize but do not pity as she seems as masterful as possible within the limited means available. Clooney plays kind of a sap. He's constantly taking a beating and always one step behind the plot. His Geismer is likeable because he's trying to do the right thing, and it's kind of a thrill to see a Hollywood leading man be so hopeless.
Soderbergh's aesthetic decision could have easily been a cliché, but he manages to use the device to successful effect. The opening old style Warner Brothers logo and squared off film frame immediately takes the audience back in time, while the backlot sets and film noir lighting instantly take us out of the present comfort zone. But we don't stay in the past for long. Characters use curse words, which was never allowed in the time of the Hayes code, but is certainly a realistic aspect of any war story. They also have sex, another no-no back in the day. This brings a sense of reality to the film rather than just harkening back to Hollywood's Golden Age. It's an experiment in style, but a compelling vision that carries us through an otherwise standard postwar mystery romance. In the year 2006, probably only devoted film geeks will even know what Soderbergh is doing here, but they will be rewarded for their knowledge of film history. Casual viewers may be put off by the style, but it would behoove them to give it a chance and experience a one of a kind movie.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.