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By Request: The Good German Review
Here, edited a touch, is my review from May of 2007. Re-reading and reliving just what a diseased thing The Good German is, I’m not at all surprised its creator, Steven Soderbergh, has moved on to exalting a mass-murderer like Che. Not surprised at all.
THE GOOD GERMAN
The sound design isn’t bad. There, I promised myself I would start with something positive. Wait there’s more: Cate Blanchett makes it out unscathed.
Am I gushing too much?
Oh, brother, what a disaster. And I’m certainly not alone in thinking that. Produced for an estimated $35 million, this bomb barely cleared $5 million worldwide despite the presence of two fellas Hollywood and its media minions swear are box office draws: George Clooney and Tobey Maguire. But The Good German fails on more than just the financial front, it fails on every front (I was kidding about the sound design and Blanchett).
The Good German is director Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to deconstruct and tear down that American institution known as the WWII-era war film. Specifically, the Warner Bros. WWII film. More specifically (and unforgivably), Casablanca.
Soderbergh approaches the material as though he was directing Casablanca in 1941 but without having to worry about the censorious restrictions of the time. In other words: sadistic sex, nudity, and many F-bombs. Without realizing it, however, Soderbergh also approaches the material as though he were directing Casablanca without having to worry about a decent script, iconic characters, acceptable acting, an effective score or compelling cinematography.
Let me boil it down:
Bogart drinking whiskey and talking about the fate that brought Ilsa back to him:
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Clooney drinking whiskey and talking about the fate that brought Lena back to him:
“This whole g***damn country, she ends up f**king my f**king driver.”
Classy, eh? And poorly written to boot — and, unlike Clooney, Bogart managed to say it without his head bobbing like a dashboard doll. Bogart also managed to say it with such wrenching anguish he became the unlikeliest romantic leading man Hollywood had ever seen.
Jake Geismer (Clooney) is an American military journalist (Hitchcock’s, Foreign Correspondent) who returns to a rubble-strewn post-war Berlin (Reed’s, The Third Man) to cover the Potsdam Conference for the liberal New Republic (Dirty Harry’s, wtf?). He’s also hoping to find Lena (Blanchett), a woman he met and fell in love with during the war (Curtiz’s, Casablanca). Almost immediately he’s drawn into a murder that involves Lena and his driver (Tobey Maguire).
And that’s all I’m telling you. Watching it was hard enough.
The Good German is one of the the most self-conscious films ever produced. Everything is so obviously trying to get noticed that even with a strong narrative it all would’ve been lost in the barrage of technique. It took only six minutes to introduce everything that goes so horribly wrong for the next hundred:
:01 - The classic Warner Brothers’ logo. Kinda cool. But I’m thinking about that instead of the movie.
:12 - Credit sequence. I’m seeing Clooney’s name and shuddering. I’m seeing Maguire’s name and thinking of the nine bucks he still owes me for Spiderman 3. I’m hearing a heavy-handed score trying way too hard to be heard and credited for sounding like a 1945 Warner Brother’s picture. I’m watching actual newsreel footage of a bombed-out Berlin and thinking of putting The Third Man on and bluffing my way through this review.
2:12 - I’m seeing a foggy airport hangar and thinking of putting Casablanca onand bluffing my way through this review.
2:28 - I’m seeing Clooney get off a plane and thinking of putting anything on and bluffing my way through this review.
2:45 - I adjust the contrast on my TV. The movie’s in black and white but all the white is way too blown out. Nothing helps. Just to be sure it’s not my TV I put on Abbott and Costello Meet The Keystone Kops. Nope, the television’s fine, and Abbott and Costello? Well, they rule.
2:59 - Tully (Maguire) holds a hand-written sign for Clooney that reads, “Geismar.” I thought the sign said “GetSmart” and was glad to see Clooney finally getting some good advice. But Geismar is Clooney’s character name. Oh, well.
3:10 - Jake and Tully are in a jeep driving through war-torn Berlin. The backdrop is purposefully fake. What I mean is that it’s not trying to make you believe it’s real. It wants you to notice that it’s fake so you think, Cool, just like a 1945 Warner Brothers’ movie. Only when you watch a 1945 Warner Brothers movie there’s nothing in it that makes you think that; so, I don’t think this whole thing’s working.
3:15 - Still in the jeep, Clooney’s head is bobbing so much I’m wondering why Maguire doesn’t just grab him and sit him on the dashboard where he belongs.
3:19 - Clooney hangs onto his Rodeo Drive-Cred by having his character tell us he’s a writer for The New Republic and that his Captain’s uniform is just a joke the Army played on him. You see, Clooney’s Jake is above all that serving your country nonsense. He’s too cool for school. Aloof. Cynical. Hardened. Smarter than your average bear.
3:35 - On the other hand, Tully’s talking all America and apple pie. He’s an innocent. A naif. If he wasn’t driving a jeep he’d be digging his toe in the dirt. He’s all awe shucks and golly gee. And because liberals are nothing if not unoriginal and predictable, I now know he’s the bad guy.
Why didn’t Soderbergh just go all the way with his “tells” and throw in a lapel flag and Yosemite Sam mudflaps?
4:04 - Clooney and Maguire enter a building with a fat Congressman. The fat Congressman’s complaining about how the “godless” Russian’s are down by the rail yard taking anything that’s not nailed down back to Moscow. Clooney replies, “Well, why not? They took most of the bullets,” proving he wasn’t kidding about that New Republic gig.
4:12 - The blown out cinematography isn’t just affecting the white balance anymore, it’s hurting the black. The shadows are so deep you can’t see anyone’s eyes in too many of the shots. This never happened in 1945. You didn’t notice the shadows in 1945. You felt them. You felt the contrasts. You felt the mise en scene. Nobody shot anything like this in 1945. Jack Warner would’ve fired Soderbergh in 1945. Everything was better in 1945: You could smoke in restaurants, women weren’t allowed to vote, and The Duke had thirty good years ahead of him.
4:26 - Tully is showing Jake his living quarters but the music would have you believe he was raising a barn in Ohio while bonding with the Amish.
5:12 - Tully’s on-the-nose voice over begins.
5:15 - The transition is a screen-wipe. A screen-wipe! OMG! LOL! ROFLMAO! Sorry, I got all modern there. I forgot it was 1945 because someone’s working so hard to tell me it is!
5:26 - Tully says, bullsh**. I put hand to mouth and gasp. I should’ve gasped first. It’s awfully hard to gasp with your hand over your mouth. Live and learn.
5:56 - Tully shags Cate Blanchett from behind as his cynical voice over tells us how happy he is that this war has made him the very bad guy those of us on to liberal films expected him to be.
Within another minute Tully will go all crazy eyes on Lena; threatening and humiliating her with a hearty f-bomb in every other sentence. The next time we see Jake he’ll be talking the same way, and before you know it that cherished institution of the bartender/listener will toss off the word ”c**t.” This sudden change from a 1945 sensibility to profanity and overt sexuality is so obviously geared to shock, it doesn’t.
It’s all too calculating.
The Good German never feels like a real movie. It feels like an experiment, a failed one. And unless you count the aping of elements, everything that truly made those grand Warner Brothers’ pictures timeless is ignored. There’s not a single interesting character actor. No Alan Hale, no Peter Lorre, no Barton McLane. There’s not a single subplot to add even a little juice to the plodding room-to-room narrative - and the dialogue is horrible. Even an actress as wonderful as Blanchett can’t survive a close-up where she’s directed to stare off into the distance and utter, “You can never really get out of Berlin.”
Get it? It’s a metaphor.
The famous shot of Bogart in Casablanca where the camera moves in on his reaction to Ingrid Bergman re-entering his life is duplicated … twice. Was David Zucker filling in that day?
Clooney’s out of his league and over his bobble head. To be fair, it’s not all his fault with nothing to work with other than lousy dialogue and a story that has him entering rooms, demanding information, exiting, discovering he was lied to, and then trying another room.
He’s Inspector Clouseau with Parkinsons.
These movies demand icons, and icons were created by the Bogarts and Cagneys and Flynns because they were actors who could handle anything, and their characters, unlike Clooney’s, would ultimately shed the cynicism. The whole point of those films was to watch hard-bitten men forgive an ugly world its sharp elbows and return to the human race after rediscovering a belief in something — all with the help of an astonishingly beautiful and, more importantly, good woman.
Bogart’s eyes laughed at you; Cagney reeked of hair-trigger danger; Flynn dissolved the world’s problems with a grin; Cary Grant had no idea how attractive he was; Joseph Cotten was made both relentless and naive by his principles; and Joel McRae was wonderfully self-aware of his own cynicism. Watching Clooney in this milieu is like listening to Harry Connick Jr. after a Sinatra concert: First you mourn, then you hug your record collection.
Not that any of that matters to the filmmakers. The Good German isn’t about character or story or even filmmaking. It’s about what liberals are always about: the tearing down of institutions, and this time they’re after Casablanca. They sexually degrade Bergman’s Ilsa by turning her into a whore, Bogart’s Rick is now a commie sympathizer whose very survival depends on him never losing his belief in nothing, every fresh-faced GI is a sadistic war-profiteer, and the military itself completely corrupt.
The Good German is a disgraceful piece of filmmaking. The hubris at work here isn’t the result of a filmmakers belief he can do it better, it comes from a loathing of everything those films stood for. No one was motivated by passion. They were motivated by hateful disdain.
What made those films timeless was that each of them has a living soul. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when the soulless fail to understand that.
All that aside, all the history and cinematic lore aside, The Good German is still an unbelievably dull, poorly scripted, poorly shot, poorly acted, poorly scored, rancid hearted, melodramatic failure.
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