Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "The Good German"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

Occasionally, as a film writer, you find yourself in the position of wanting to defend a movie instead of reviewing it. Such is the case with Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Good German, which is one of the year’s most interesting films, yet is being greeted with hoots of derision from most critics. Those who aren’t trashing it are hedging their bets with lukewarm reviews; most are making arguments against it that even they know are bullshit.

But we’ll return to that, since you probably just want to hear about the damn movie. George Clooney stars as Capt. Jake Geismer, a military writer covering the peace conference in Potsdam, who stumbles into a complex web of deception, lies, and spies involving his gee-whiz driver (Tobey Maguire) and his ex-girlfriend (Cate Blanchett, doing a flawless German vamp).

Soderbergh, whose insistence on remaining experimental in spite of being a bankable commodity is downright admirable, chose (much as Todd Haynes did in the wonderful Far From Heaven) to make a film that felt like it was made in its period, as opposed to making a “period piece”. Shooting in black-and-white was a foregone conclusion (the photography, by Soderbergh under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, is lovely—he gets the deep blacks right, but also plays with the blown-out whites), but Soderbergh also used only fixed-length period lenses and eliminated such modern conveniences as Steadicams and body mikes. The resulting film has a great feel; all of the details are just right, from the camera angles to the transitions to the terrific score by Thomas Newman.

Clooney fits right in to all of this—at his best, his weathered man’s man persona has always felt like a throwback to the “golden age”, and he’s one of the few leading men today who honestly warrants comparison to Bogart or Gable. Maguire does a nice twist on his all-American boy image, and his dark character takes some decidedly surprising turns. And Cate Blanchett is, well, Cate Blanchett—which is to say, perfection. Jack Thompson, Leland Orser, and Beau Bridges are among a fine supporting cast of terrific character actors.

The resulting film is clean, slick, professional, and engaging. Why, then, is it being subjected to such hostility? J. Hoberman’s review in the Village Voice (which calls The Good German “fatally insipid”) sounds less like he saw the film, and more like he overheard Soderbergh making some rude comments about his mother. It takes on the point of view of most of the negative reviews (it feels like these critics got a talking points memo)—that Soderbergh sets himself up for failure by paying homage to these great films, but that the film is ultimately a soulless exercise that knows the words but not the music.

Yes, there is a lot of riffing going on here (of Casablanca, of The Third Man, of Chinatown), but it works; it’s the kind of gentle homage to a beat or theme that Tarantino does so well. But the idea (articulated in many reviews) that the film is some sort of emotionless experiment is pure poppycock—have these reviewers seen any post-war cinema? These were not films that wore their hearts on their sleeves. Even Casablanca, still considered one of the great movie romances, is a film that is decidedly subtle in its emotional textures (that’s part of the reason why people love it, and much of the reason that Bogie is so great in it). Further, by juxtaposing the post-war narrative with the visual style of film noir, Soderbergh is creating an atmosphere that suffocates conventional emotional ennui—what genre hides its emotions better than noir, with its near-nihilist desperation, bitter heroes, and tough broads? And has any character in recent film felt more like a noir heroine that Blanchett’s hooker with a heart of stone?

The Good German is not without its problems. The use of stock footage is not altogether successful due to the degraded quality of the images; some of the storytelling is more than a little murky (I’m still not 100% clear as to who everyone was at that safe house at the end, and why they were there). These are easily forgivable offenses. The Good German is fascinating, risky, exciting cinema. Don’t believe the hype.

"The Good German" is available on DVD and on Netflix Instant.

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