There are all kinds of different World War II movies to choose from this December. The kind where people speak in authentic German accents and talk about their feelings (The Reader), the kind where people speak in authentic Belorussian accents and kick ass (Defiance), the kind where Tom Cruise tries to kill Hitler (Valkyrie), and then Good, the most old-fashioned kind, in which everyone in Germany speaks with British accents and Nazis are evil, evil evil-- except one.
The single-word, declarative title-- also in style this season, given Doubt and Defiance--actually belies the movie's murky themes of right and wrong. Presumably it refers to the title character, John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), an academic living in Germany while the rise of the Third Reich occurs all around him. Frustrated by life with his ailing mother (Gemma Jones), he writes a novel that supports the idea of euthanasia for the aged. Years later, the Third Reich-- represented by a steely Mark Strong-- picks up on the novel and asks Halder to write a paper containing the same ideas, which we know and he doesn't will be used to support killing the sick, elderly, and oh yeah, the Jewish.
Halder is appointed an "honorary" officer in the S.S., all while his close friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a Jew, mocks his new status, and Halder leaves his wife for comely former student Anne (Jodie Whittaker). As the Nazi party grows more powerful and attacks against Jews strengthen, Halder loses his friendship with Maurice, just before he is drafted into service for the S.S. he never particularly supported in the first place.
Germans who were on the wrong side of the Holocaust but never technically did wrong remain a sticky moral issue, and one that is coming up in culture more and more with each passing decade. Good started as a play in 1982, and maybe it is because stories like Halder's are more prominent now that the movie lacks its intended ethical punch. Vicente Amorim, making his English-language debut after starting his career in Brazil, directs the story in a straightforward way, except when occasionally ventures into the movie's weirdest, most inexplicable gimmick. When Halder is faced with a moral issue, or anything troubling, he hallucinates that a group of people surrounding him are singing a classical song, sounding like it's coming from a scratchy record. There's a payoff at the end, when Halder finds himself visiting a concentration camp, but the gimmick makes very little sense and adds nothing to the central moral issue of the story.
Mortensen is very good, as always, and he and Isaacs make for a great conversational duo, but their debates and disagreements don't make for the compelling drama they ought to. It's hard to call anything a "standard" Holocaust film, but Good feels more like a retread rather than anything new, more self-important than satisfying.