OK, it’s more of an experiment than a movie. But why deny the magic? Director Steven Soderbergh hasn’t merely made an espionage thriller set in post-World War II Berlin, he’s shot it in black-and-white using only equipment available to Hollywood directors in the 1940s. That means fixed lenses (no zoom), boom mikes hanging over the actors’ heads (no wireless) and hardly any computer graphics. Soderbergh couldn’t bring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman back from the dead, but he did the next best thing. He hired George Clooney, who exudes a timeless star quality and plays it hard and achingly romantic as Jake Geismar, an Army war correspondent. Then there’s Cate Blanchett, who plays it achingly bitter as Lena Brandt, Jake’s ex-lover, who will put a price on her body and her conscience to get out of Berlin.
Add Tobey Maguire to the mix as Tully, a motor-pool soldier with connections in the black market and a black heart that belies his baby face. No fair giving away too much about a movie that prizes its aura of mystery. But Paul Attanasio has adapted the novel by Joseph Kanon to evoke 1940s classics such as The Third Man and Casablanca with a skeptical modern squint. In short, the movie works on its own, with a gleam of seductive corruption that doesn’t allow for a happy ending. The actors all come up aces, especially Blanchett, who catches the deadpan glamour of Marlene Dietrich and a deadly allure strong enough to lead men to their doom. Still, this is Soderbergh’s show, and a haunting and hypnotic show it is. I’d also praise cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard, except those are just names Soderbergh made up to hide behind. No true student of cinema will want to miss his ride back to the future. It’s pure moviegoing bliss.