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The Good German

(2006) *** R
108 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Robin Weigert, Dave Power.

Sixty-four years ago, a World War II thriller pulled the trigger on this famous line of dialogue: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine." Today, a film basking in Casablanca's reflected glory gives the line its own modern spin: "This whole goddamn country—she ends up fucking my fucking driver." Though The Good German consciously evokes Casablanca and other films of the 40s, screenwriter Paul Attanasio and director Steven Soderbergh apply their contemporary attitudes. The result is a nifty mystery that's a bit too self-conscious for its own good.

In July of 1945, with Churchill, Truman, and Stalin readying to draw the post-war map, war correspondent Jake Geismar ruefully returns to his old stomping grounds of Berlin. He finds a city in ruins, scavenged by the Americans and the Russians ("the next war," he says). The GI driver who greets him—an enthusiastic black marketeer named Tully (Tobey Maguire)—shows his true colors when he cheerily offers Jake a ride on his kept woman. Jake refuses, but later discovers she's his old flame Lena (Cate Blanchett), now a war widow working every angle to get her papers and, at long last, escape.

When Jake becomes embroiled in a murder, he learns more than he wants to know about the dark side of the peace conference: secret maneuverings to secure every last valuable cog of the Nazi war machine (as, "above board," the U.S. prosecutes war crimes). Because of what her husband knew, Lena has a bargaining chip. A cold and skilled manipulator practiced in survival, she's a femme fatale with a Dietrich drawl, and Jake can't get her out of his mind.

Attanasio's script, from the Joseph Kanon novel, is an increasingly rare piece of careful construction. Attanasio gives each of the three main characters a swatch of narration that expresses a guarded line of thinking, while letting the other players—Beau Bridges' colonel, Leland Orser's military attorney, Ravil Isyanov's Russian general—betray their motivations through barely veiled subtext. What Jake first dismisses as the settling of post-war ennui turns out to be a cynical rush, in an occupied territory, to protect national and personal interests. As one character asks, "What do the next 100 years look like?" I've got one word for you...profiteering (pointedly, Soderbergh includes Truman's infamous 1945 lie "There is not one piece of territory or one thing of a monetary nature that we want out of this war").

Beside still-relevant political observation, Attanasio ably commands the film's twisty complications (Jake Geismar doesn't share initials with Jake Gittes for nothing). A Soderbergh film, though, is always, unmistakably, the director's show, and his latest experiment is to film The Good German as if it were made in the '40s: entirely on studio back lots, sets, and local L.A. locations, with lighting, sound, and camera strategies bound to 1940s equipment and conventions (Soderbergh is, pseudonymously, his own cinematographer and editor). The director instructs his actors to play in a pre-Methodical, presentational style and his composer, Thomas Newman, likewise to play it old-school.

The result is a noir-ish exercise that, while fun to watch in a film geeky way and despite its modern dollops of sex and violence, has something distinctly airless about it. Most of the time, Soderbergh patterns his visual scheme less on Casablanca than The Third Man, but Soderbergh proves once again that no one gets in his way more than he does: he goes off the deep end by nakedly aping Casablanca's famous airport-runway sendoff. How can we appreciate the present moment in Soderbergh's film when all we can think about are our own old flames, Bogie and Bacall? And how much we miss them?

Aside from this egregious misstep, The Good German offers a smart, smartly made, and enjoyable excursion back to a time Clooney's patsy wrongly identifies as "the good old days—when you could tell the bad guy by who was shooting at you."

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