Friday, February 16, 2007

The Good German

Starring the current Spiderman (Tobey Maguire), a former Batman (George Clooney) and the queen of the elves herself (Cate Blanchett), the heavyweight cast of 'The Good German' may lead you to believe it is a blockbusting 'event movie' of the Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer variety, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, this movie was billed as 'an experiment' for the director, one in which he only used equipment that was available in the 1940's. So, no zoom lenses, only one camera per shot, and hand-held boom microphones. We might be forgiven for asking, as John Stewart put to George Clooney in his Daily Show interview: "why!?".

Well, The Good German is a noir tale of suspense and intrigue, set against the backdrop of conflict-ravaged Berlin and Potsdam in 1945, just as WWII is drawing to a close. So the easy answer to John Stewart's question is really that the style of production just happens to suit the subject matter, and contributes to immersing the audience in the story.

Clooney plays a war-time correspondent for the U.S. forces, stationed in Berlin, with the nefarious Tully (Tobey Maguire) assigned as his driver. Tully is sleeping with Lena, the German referred to in the title, and she turns out to also be an old flame of Clooney's from the his previous Berlin assignment. Lena is played by Cate Blanchett, and her performance is noir femme fatale to a tee, effortlessly mixing the German accent of Marlene Dietrich with the smoking femininity of Lauren Bacall from the days of 'Dark Passage' and 'To Have and Have Not'. Her stand-out performance really out-shines her two super-hero co-stars, and PCMR must stop banging on about this, but she really is one of the best actresses working today. Even large amounts of German dialogue can't repress her ability to deliver each scene as capably as the last.

War-time Berlin was a place where, to put it mildly, many bad things happened. The characters in this movie espouse the belief that, after living in Berlin for a while, nothing surprises you any more. This is the backdrop for this intriguing story, and is also a classic element of many noir tales, detailing a micro-struggle set against the backdrop of a larger conflict. Every noir movie also needs a bar, a smoke-filled sleazy den, housing shady characters, military men, and dangerous women, all with an angle to work and a story to tell. The Good German is no different, and in these scenes, the barman, played by the Scot Tony Curran, has some great lines. His genuine Scottish accent seems a little out of place in war-time Berlin, but this adds to his character, and he has some memorable moments.

It was a strange experience for PCMR, watching this one at 10.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but in a strange way, the timing seemed appropriate to the lazy pace of the movie. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, mainly because there is too much detail to cover, but also because every little detail gradually builds the plot, and contributes to the outcome of the story. Like every noir movie should, The Good German twists and turns, with your opinions of characters never allowed to settle as they gradually reveal their cards, and what they have at stake.

The noir tradition was established by Hollywood classics of the 40's and 50's, and is populated by such legends as Peter Lorre, John Huston, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich and the man himself, Humphrey Bogart. Roman Polanski also added a benchmark to the genre in 1974, when he teamed up with screenwriter Robert Towne, Faye Dunaway and a certain Jack Nicholson to produce one of PCMR's all-time top movies 'Chinatown'. (Wasn't John Huston in that too? - Ed). The Coen brothers have even done a noir flick, receiving a more mixed reaction with their slickly shot 'The Man Who Wasn't There'.

The point of this little noir history lesson is that Steven Soderbergh is attempting to move into an illustrious neighbourhood with this movie, and is harking back to an established style that has been well-defined by some of the cinematic greats. Indeed, for much of the movie, Clooney sports stitches in his cheek and a bandage on his ear, in a thinly disguised nod and wink to Jack Nicholson's 'Chinatown' nose plaster. Also, the closing scenes of The Good German, set as they are in a military airfield, are a very obvious reference to the iconic ending of 'Casablanca', with driving rain substituted for the misty setting of - arguably - Bogie's most iconic cinematic moments. Soderbergh and writer Paul Attanasio avoid the temptation to refer directly to Casablanca in the dialogue, but the similarity of these scenes must have been intentional.

The style imposed by the constraints of the equipment used gives the movie a real old-school feel, continually reinforcing the noir atmosphere. Clooney's idiosyncratic charisma is reinforced by the black-and-white film, and he delivers a capable enough performance. Also, Tobey Maguire does a very good job as the dodgy geezer Tully, but Blanchett's performance is the real reference point of the flick. She played Hepburn in 'The Aviator', and her mysterious character in this movie is definitely a little Dietrich. Her femme fatale is the main driver behind Clooney's investigations, which gradually uncover a multi-layered mystery involving the american military, the enemy, and a possible cover-up of something really quite heinous.

It's unfortunate for 'The Good German' that the noir genre is so well-defined, because it's really quite a good movie in it's own right, so to compare it to, say 'Chinatown', is unfair. For me, Soderbergh's 'experiment' is more than that, as the movie is slickly shot, very well acted by the three leads and an excellent troupe of talented support actors - Beau Bridges amongst them. The plot is immersive, and the inter-mixing of stock showreel footage from that era contributes to separating the acts, and also placing the audience in this time and place. The story also has contemporary relevance, relating as it does to Clooney's growing discomfort at the fact that his own military superiors may not be acting with the moral fibre one would expect from people in the seat of power. (Shady politicians? Perish the thought! - Ed)

However, despite all it has going for it, if I was going to pick holes, I felt the pace of the action dragged a little in the denouement (That'd be 'the ending' then.. - Ed), and I wasn't as attached to the outcome of Clooney's story as I was to Cate Blanchett's character. Overall though, it was a very enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning, and I'm quite surprised that 'The Good German' was pretty much overlooked by Oscar, garnering as it did just the single nomination for music.

The verdict: Immersive, atmospheric and well-acted, but just a tad drawn out in the end.
The rating: 7/10

No comments:

/** Amazon Affiliates code /** Google Analytics Code