The Film: Good (2008)

The Principals: Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Mark Strong (in a blink and you miss it role), Gemma Jones, Vincente Amorim (director)

The Premise:  John Halder (Mortensen) is an ordinary college professor.  He’s a man of quiet principles and a heap of ordinary problems — a family to feed, a vacant wife, a sick and senile mother — and is reluctant to lockstep with the new Nazi party.  But a novel he writes in a fit of pique and personal anger catches the eye of Nazi officials, and they come with flattery and promises.  Halder makes a few small compromises, and finds himself comfortable and happy.  But as his fortunes rise, his best friend Maurice’s (Isaacs) fall. Maurice is Jewish and sees the writing on the wall.  Will Halder see it in time to help his friend? Or will he continue to believe the Nazi Party is just a fad?

Is It Good: I refuse to make the cheesy exclamation the film’s title begs. Instead, I will say that it’s solid, but not as compelling as I hoped it would be.  Good is based on C.P. Taylor’s play, which I’m regrettably unfamiliar with except in a broad sense, so I’m not sure if my issues are with the source or the way it was adapted.  The story feels better suited to an intimate stage than a big screen.  There’s some repetition — a lot of scenes seem to be of Mortensen just walking and worrying in close-up — which suggests there were scenes added to meet a film’s running time.  It gets saggy and loses a lot of dramatic tension.

There’s also an incredibly odd running theme where Halder slips into a dream state, and people break into a creepy, scratchy song.  This seems to come into play at the end, suggesting this song is a warning, or a glimpse into his future, but it’s corny, bizarre, and a horrible tonal shift. This is history we’re talking about, and it strikes me as somewhat insensitive to have people breaking out in song during Kristallnacht.  Again, I’m not sure if this is an element in the original play (I suspect it is) but it’s something that would work onstage in the heightened reality of the theatre. Not so much on film, where the costumes, sets, and smashed heads are more steeped in realism.

Criticisms aside, it is a (gulp) good film.  It’s rare to see the story of ordinary German people caught up in the ugly whirlwind of the Third Reich, and watch them make those small choices that added up into history’s darkest hour.  We generally approach history from the benefit of hindsight. Good reminds you no one knew what was coming, and it’s appallingly easy to go along with something when it means a promotion, a nicer house, or a nurse for your mother. It’s just politics. It’s not like you have to agree with them, right? And then you wake up, and you’re wearing an SS uniform.

Is It Worth a Look:  Absolutely.  Mortensen and Isaacs are fantastic.  Many tend to think of Isaacs as “that British bad guy”, and Mortensen as a pretty-boy badass, so seeing them as ordinary people will be illuminating.  There’s nothing particularly special about Halder or Maurice. The former is a bit nerdy and nervous, the latter a little more cocky and polished, but they’re really just average guys.  They’re just pals from the war who hang out and drink beer, and the two actors have a really easy camaraderie.  Halder doesn’t experience much of an arc (he remains befuddled and optimistic until the end) but Maurice protests and cracks as political and social pressures mount, and Isaacs (usually so smoothly evil) is really heartbreaking in the role.

As I said above, the film often feels a little loose and disjointed, but it’s worth sitting through simply for the final scene.  It’s a sucker punch even from our educated perspective, and Mortensen plays it perfectly.

Random Anecdotes: Good was a pet project of Isaacs, and originally had Hugh Jackman in the John Halder role.  Isaacs not only banged the drum to get it going, but personally financed it when it fell apart in its first round of filming.  It died anyway, and lost Jackman due to schedule conflict, but Isaacs managed to resurrect it.  He then put his dignity on the line to have a friend-of-a-friend give the script to Mortensen, who was only too happy to come aboard.