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Curveball
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by Jay Seaver

"Even when you can see it coming, you can be helpless against it."
4 stars

There must be an entry in Ebert's Little Movie Glossary about the way movies like "Curveball" start, with a little bit outside the main film's setting that isn't entirely dispensable but certainly shows what's about to happen at a larger scale in microcosm. Here, it's German chemical weapons inspector Wolf (Sebastian Blomberg) letting his American colleague Leslie (Virginia Kull) believe that he was married rather than a widower because he thought she was looking for an affair as they searched for WMDs in 1997 Iraq. Even without hindsight, we'd know that something like this was about to be writ large; fortunately, the movie knows how to hit those notes even if they won't be a surprise.

It picks up two years later, when Dr. Wolf is working in a BND lab outside Munich; as the department's foremost expert on anthrax production, he's tasked by his superior officer Schatz (Thorsten Merten) to aid agent Retzlaff (Michael Wittenborn) in debriefing refugee Rafid Alwan (Dar Salim), a 34-year-old chemical engineer who claims to have witnessed tests personally. Alwan is canny enough to keep details close to the vest until he has an apartment and promises of protection, but the BND is eager to find out what he knows - they are a small player in the global intelligence community, and might be able to trade this information to the Americans for Stasi files they have been guarding since the end of the Cold War. It's the sort of information that becomes extremely valuable after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., because even if it's not reliable, it certainly fits the narrative that some in the Bush Administration want to sell.

For as cynical as the story being told is, there's something oddly gentle about the way director Johannes Naber and his co-writer Oliver Keidel go about telling it. Wolf and most of the people in his immediate orbit aren't really that ambitious - he's got a job he wants to do well, Rafid just wants to be safe in a new home, and everyone has a very human reluctance to admit when they've made a mistake, not really thinking about how those feelings can be weaponized. Even the people who wind up falling into the category of villain are human despite their amorality, personable enough that one might grasp for reasons they can be redeemed and not the bureaucratic idiots that become the targets of easy satire.

There's still a lot of dark humor to be mined from the situation, which starts out as a kind of goofily absurdist look at the BND: For all I know, the real-life Retzlaff does smoke an actual pipe, and their offices circa 1999 really did look fifteen or twenty years out of date, but it's kind of delightfully anti-James Bond in the way it goes the other extreme in how it embraces just how relatively irrelevant this one-time great power can sometimes seem, a second-class shop whose internal politics are petty still seeing itself as competing with the superpowers. As the film reaches 2001 and beyond, it becomes cheerfully ridiculous, with a car chase so silly it would make one laugh out loud even without the genuinely funny, important twist to it. The sheer enormity of the jigsaw puzzle Wolf is solving after being dismissed feels like self-parody without winking at the audience too much.

It's a line the film often has to be careful of with Dr. Wolf, but Sebastian Blomberg is on top of it, doing a very impressive job of making him believably one of the top men in his field but also just right when taken away from his area of expertise, impressive because the script calls for him to be aware of how he's in over his head some places but blindsided in others, and it never feels off. He's got a nice chemistry with Virginia Kull that lingers after Leslie turns out to be different from how he (and through him the audience) initially sees her, and she does nice work in not making those scenes feel like flipping a switch. Dar Salim is nifty as Rafid as well - fairly transparent to the audience, but just credible enough that folks who are invested in his story might believe him, and genuinely funny when he gets into ridiculous situations later on.

It's seemingly light for a movie about decisions that caused so much death and destruction, right down to the tagline incorporated into the opening titles ("A True Story, Unfortunately"). But there's a sort of terrible honesty in how both seemingly and actual reasonable people make these mistakes that can be seized upon by bad actors, and for all that Naber encourages us to laugh at the absurdity of it, the end result is never allowed to drift too far from the viewer's mind.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33958&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/27/20 04:28:12
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