Judge Clark Douglas is thinking about joining the Nazis. I mean, they can't be all bad, right?
Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.
"One thing you can say for the SS—they keep extremely thorough records."
Facts of the Case
John Halder (Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises) is generally regarded as a good man. He was a somewhat liberal professor at a German university during the 1930s, where he had a tremendous impact on his students. As time passes and the Nazis rise to power, John finds himself in a series of difficult positions: he's asked to stop teaching certain books that he loves, asked to stop associating with certain people and to start upholding certain beliefs that he's never had before. Slowly but surely, John begins to cave to the requests being made of him. But how long can he continue to justify his affiliation with the Nazis before he can no longer honestly call himself a good man?
I wish I could tell you that Good lives up to its title, but I'm afraid that isn't so. To be sure, this isn't due to a lack of effort on the part of the filmmakers. This is a professional, thoughtful, carefully crafted motion picture that makes a genuine attempt at exploring a rather challenging subject. Many of the right pieces are in place for this idea to work, but the film's attention to detail surprisingly proves to be its own undoing.
Let me explain. Good attempts to demonstrate just how a sensible, thoughtful, intellectual "good man" like John Halder could join the Nazi party without feeling too much guilt. This is an interesting goal and by no means a dishonest one. I am certain that there were some "good men" who found ways to justify taking sides with the Nazis, no matter how spectacularly misguided those justifications may have been. However, the instance presented in this film just isn't persuasive enough, and not just because of the glaring hindsight of history. Halder seems too principled and intelligent early on to simply fold the way he does, and too many genuinely atrocious aspects of the Nazi belief system are already on full display from the beginning.
Halder's best friend is a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice Israel Gluckstein (Jason Isaacs, The Patriot), who is adamantly opposed to everything the Nazis stand for. He will not compromise his principles, he will not contemplate supporting the Nazis, and he will not respect anyone who does. His arguments are precise, logical, and fiery; he calls out Halder's self-delusions with assured vigor. His argument is so strong and Halder's so limp that we're never really able to believe that Halder could justify his actions without knowing damn well what he's doing. The film makes an interesting point, but fails because it's afraid of making that point very well.
There's another significant reason the film doesn't work, too: the casting of Viggo Mortensen in the central role. Now, before I go any further, let me state without reservation that I think Mortensen is a superb actor in general and that he actually does everything he can in this role to the best of his ability. The problem is that the role itself too blatantly contradicts Mortensen's natural screen presence. Mortensen's strength is playing resolved, unflappable, sturdy men who tend to follow through on anything they put their mind to. Consider the hard-working family man of A History of Violence, his natural leadership as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, the professional gangster in Eastern Promises and the dedicated father in The Road.
In this role, Mortensen is required to play the character as a nervous, fumbling, stammering, socially awkward type who's easily pushed into unpleasant situations—with an English accent no less, as everyone in the film is required to speak with an English accent for some reason. The part would be well-suited to someone like Colin Firth or perhaps Alan Cumming, but Mortensen's face too often slips into quiet resolve while his vocal inflections and physical mannerisms insist otherwise. It's a valiant effort on the part of the actor, but it doesn't succeed because one is more likely to notice his effort than his character.
The DVD transfer is very respectable, offering detailed visuals and deep blacks. There are moments where the image looks a little soft, but for the most part this transfer gets the job done quite nicely. Audio is solid enough, though it's mostly a rather subdued track that isn't likely to give your system much of a workout. Supplements include an hour of interviews with various cast members, though the interviews are maddeningly split up into a bunch of tiny snippets preceded by slides informing how long the upcoming clip is going to be. Almost too irritating to be worth the bother, despite some interesting insights here and there. Then you get 30 minutes of raw behind-the-scenes footage, which lacks any context or judicious editing. Meh. It's 90 minutes of content, but too troublesome to be worthwhile. You also get a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film isn't entirely a waste of time, as the scenes featuring Isaacs do manage to make a strong impression that hits the right notes. If only the rest of the film had been so persuasive, I would be heartily recommending it.
Good is a well-intentioned film that just doesn't quite work. It's only worth a look for those curious enough to examine a noteworthy instance of a good actor attempting to deal with a role that just isn't meant for him.
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