In a perplexing move, Universal and Warner Bros. are releasing two films whose titles begin "The Good" on the very same day. It was already easy to confuse the two: The Good Shepherd may be billions of hours long and in mostly monochromatic color, The Good German a modest 105 minutes and in wild, contrasty black and white—but they're both pastiches of better movies, set at danger-ridden historical crossroads that are meant to remind us of our own times.
In The Good Shepherd, a tense Yalie named Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is tapped to join Skull and Bones on the basis of his WASP bona fides. He's uptight and pale and has a penchant for poetry, so you'd think the sexually charged initiation would send him for a loop. Instead, the ceremony—garden-variety mud wrestling, with some urination and public confessions thrown in for good measure—is rendered with a minimum of mystery and fear. Edward gets upset and storms out, then calms down and storms back in.
Recruited to join the fledgling CIA, Edward soon gets molested by a heaving girl named Clover (Angelina Jolie, so intent on being sexy that she has no chance to act). Inevitably, Clover gets knocked up, and Edward is pulled off a beach—where he's wooing his true love, a docile deaf girl—and forced to marry her. His job keeps him abroad for five years, so they never fall in love. (Tragic, I'm sure.) They do, however, beget a boy (Eddie Redmayne) with tight translucent skin and a distinctly froggy physiognomy.
As imagined by director Robert De Niro, Edward's covert CIA activities consist of a series of passwords and trapdoors and secret underground intelligence lairs, interspersed with flash-forwards in which he stalks the crucial leak that spoiled his pet project, the invasion of the Bay of Pigs. There's a sequence of ludicrous technological refinements on skimpy evidence. There's a password involving an elaborate order for hand-tailored suits. There's a torture scene in which a suspected Russian spy charges out the window after being fed an experimental truth serum called LSD. But thanks to flat dialogue by Eric Roth, a studiously internal performance by Matt Damon, and a palette consisting largely of murky beige, it's impossible to get invested in the film. I'm all for learning about the birth of the modern nation, but this spurious history class will put you straight to sleep.
The Good German is much more fun. It does feel a little strange to reach for amusement when the subject is the fall of the Nazis and the fracturing of Berlin, and surely Steven Soderbergh didn't initially conceive of the project as unfettered entertainment. But then he decided to film the 1940s story with 1940s technology, and the result is sweetly absurd.
George Clooney plays Jacob Geismer, a sexy correspondent for the New Republic, who returns to Berlin only to have his wallet immediately swiped by his military driver, a smirking Tobey Maguire. The Berlin he finds is a cascade of picturesque black-and-white rubble, and the atmosphere that was missing from The Good Shepherd rushes in like cold air. And that's before we meet our femme fatale (Cate Blanchett, purring her best Marlene Dietrich), the wife of a former SS officer. The cinematography is full of low angles, silky blacks, and brilliant whites—sometimes so eager to paint a dramatic picture that it clumsily veils or washes out the faces and actions in the frame. The story is almost beside the point. Who wants to pay attention to a plot about the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. vying for the same evil scientists when you can admire the shadows cast by wrought iron?
The difference between The Good Shepherd and The Good German is never starker than when Soderbergh's camera descends underground and discovers a waifish Nazi fugitive, cloaked in shadows and damp. Here, in a moment's glimpse, is the instant recoil that The Good Shepherd tried ineffectually to summon when the body of a British intelligence officer is tossed in a canal. Movies are made up of pictures, and there are more good ones in Soderbergh's film than in De Niro's.