The Good German is an easy movie to admire. Soderbergh is attempting to capture the look and the feel of film from the 40s, and he does it. The Good German doesn’t just imitate these movies, it is one of them; Soderbergh isn’t just aping the camera moves and lighting, he understands it completely and uses it naturally. But within all that style there’s nothing to love, no center for the audience to grab. It’s a hollow movie.
George Clooney is Jake, a US war correspondent who has come to Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, the big meeting in the days after the Nazi government fell where the Allies carved up Europe. He gets assigned a driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), who seems to be the all-American apple pie GI on the exterior, but who is actually up to his neck in the black market. And Tully’s girlfriend – who he sometimes pimps out – turns out to be Jake’s ex-flame Lena (Cate Blanchett, perfectly luminous), who he knew when assigned to Berlin before the war. The three of them get involved in a shadowy conspiracy surrounding the Conference – the US and the USSR are racing to acquire their own Nazi rocket scientists before they can be hung as war criminals.
Maguire’s performance as the secretly psycho Tully is dividing critics. Soderbergh has made his movie pitch-perfect 1940s – except for one sex scene, a rape scene, and plenty of f-bombs, and Tully is the character who straddles both aspects of the film. He’s outwardly a gee whiz farm boy, but he’s secretly selling booze to the Russians and beating guys up. I loved that Maguire was cast in a role that both played up to and went against his image, and he’s obviously having a ton of fun in the part. I found Soderbergh’s dichotomy of modern language and 40s style often distracting, except when it came from Maguire, who finds the exact right attitude and level of hamminess and holds it. When he’s doing his thing you feel like you’re watching the long lost “blue” blooper reel from Casablanca.
I wish I could say the same for Clooney. The guy was born to be filmed in black and white, and he has the kind of big screen debonair charm we all thought Brando and Beatty destroyed thirty years ago with the triumph of naturalistic acting. Clooney fits in well with the surroundings and Soderbergh’s technical efforts, but he never seems to find the core of Jake. Part of the problem is that when Jake is introduced we’re told he’s a patsy – and then he spends the rest of the film being a patsy. I don’t mind the lead being played against type, but Clooney never finds anything that makes Jake compelling. Too often he’s wandering from scene to scene, being spoon fed information that he’s too dense to put together.
Weirdly he’s also unconvincing with Blanchett – there’s some essential chemistry missing. I couldn’t decide if I didn’t believe he loved her or vice versa, but either way I just didn’t buy the relationship. Which is a big problem when the studio is running around comparing the movie to Casablanca. And when the whole plot hinges on the hero making poor decisions because he wants to save the lady, body and soul.
Maybe I actually could believe Clooney loving Blanchett after all – she is so beautiful here, lit so that she seems to glow from within. And her character is mysterious, hard and distant – Lena is a survivor who did things during the war that she isn’t proud of, but that had to be done. And she’s willing to do more things now to continue to survive, especially if the secrets she’s been hiding get out. Blanchett wears that pain like underwear, something you only get a sneaky glance at now and again. It’s a wonderful performance, but it has nothing tethering it, emotionally, until right towards the end when the identity of the titular good German is revealed.
But by the end it’s too late. The emotion never comes together and we’re left with an impressive piece of craftsmanship that doesn’t quite work. It’s like a very lovely chair that’s too uncomfortable to sit in. I appreciate that Soderbergh is trying things and going places that other directors wouldn’t, but I wish that he would spend as much time on characters and story as he would on the beautiful design.