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Liars make fantastically entertaining movie protagonists. But you have to appreciate it when a film about a real-life liar admits up front that it’s fudging the facts itself. Adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright David Auburn from the journalism of Franklin Foer, Georgetown begins and ends with title cards acknowledging that it “does not, in any way, claim to be the truth.” Marking the directing debut of Christoph Waltz (who calls himself “C. Waltz,” for some reason, in the credits), the wicked little true-ish-crime film stars the director as a man who talked his way into relationships with the very powerful, then saw his fictions exposed. It’s the kind of serious but broadly appealing, modestly scaled picture that people love to say doesn’t exist any more. Some smart distributor should snap it up quickly and prove them wrong.
Waltz plays a character who is not exactly Albrecht Muth, the real man who was convicted in 2014 of killing his wife, Viola Herms Drath. Here, husband and wife (Vanessa Redgrave) are called Ulrich Mott and Elsa Brecht, and while the onscreen circumstances of their marriage are made slightly less unusual — in real life, Drath was a married sexagenarian when the teenaged Muth first asked her out; here, Mott is 50 when he starts courting the older woman — their arrangement remains eyebrow-raising.
We meet the couple on the night of Brecht’s death, as Mott is hosting one of the dinner parties that routinely draws D.C. insiders. He’s an attentive host of ingratiating charm, pretending to be modest while making sure that every conversation we hear has him at its center. (He’s “Lawrence of Arabia with a Blackberry,” one woman says, piquing our curiosity while showing how little she knows.) Only at cocktail hour’s end does Brecht come down from her bedroom, joining the dinner but hardly co-hosting it.
One of the guests seems there under duress: Amanda Brecht (Annette Bening), Elsa’s daughter from her first marriage, who scowls as if she’s witnessing a Stockholm syndrome captivity. Mother and daughter argue; the guests go home. Husband and wife argue; he goes for a midnight walk. The next morning, Elsa has suffered a fatal accident, and Amanda is certain it’s murder.
As it follows the investigation of this death, which leads to Mott’s indictment and murder trial, the pic spends most of its time in flashback, watching as this unlikely, energetic man builds his own reputation on name-dropping and innuendo. Fired from an internship, he impersonates his ex-boss to get into the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; seeing a chance to be chivalrous to Brecht (a journalist who, like Mott, is from Germany), he flatters her and asks to pick her brain, eventually becoming her always-interesting companion.
Soon the two have married, but he behaves more like a butler than a lover. Tension builds, and when she eyes him at the table one day and asks, “What are you waiting for?,” we might assume she’s talking about conjugal warmth. Instead, she hands him her address book and says, “We make our opportunities.” He selects a number and begins a very awkward phone solicitation, but finds his confidence mid-call and, as he speaks, invents a whole non-governmental organization on the fly. Elsa’s face grows proud, and the fiction becomes (sort of) real.
Like a cartoon character who can climb long flights of stairs so long as he doesn’t look down to see there’s nothing beneath him, Ulrich introduces himself to a former Prime Minister of France, then parlays that man’s name into a series of other social connections before the Frenchman even knows they’re supposed to be friends. Mott’s “Eminent Persons Group” (unlikely as it sounds, that was its real name) soon claimed people like Robert McNamara and George Soros on its board of directors.
The film can be as slippery as its hero as it energetically charts the EPG’s rise. We mightn’t be sure which of Mott’s claims are true, if overstated, and which are total fabrications. He’s very fond of strutting around his neighborhood in a hard-to-place military uniform: Is it possible that, amid his Iraq War-era attempts to broker peace, he actually has been made a general in Iraq’s army?
Waltz is ideally suited to a role in which real erudition about world affairs meets a superhuman stamina for ever-compounding lies. There was a sour quality to his character’s credit-taking in the Tim Burton film Big Eyes, but his Mott is so nearly lovable you’ll likely feel for him when his most ambitious proposal results in humiliation.
Despite the story’s ultimately life-or-death stakes, Waltz’s film is less sweaty (and, intentionally, less funny) than Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! — periodically returning to the present tense to watch as Mott suffers through prosecution with something like dignity, keeping his hopes for exoneration ever-plausible with one unlikely gambit after another. As they did with the couple’s age difference, Waltz and Auburn downplay the physical violence in the actual story, going so far as to stage scenes on a staircase and allow us to imagine Elsa’s death as a tragic accident. That’s almost definitely not what happened. But it’s just like a charismatic fabulist, or a movie bending his life to its purposes, to make us wish it were.
Production companies: Romulus Entertainment, Metalwork Pictures
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Vanessa Redgrave, Annette Bening
Director: C. Waltz
Screenwriter: David Auburn
Producers: Brett Ratner, Andrew Levitas, Brad Feinstein
Executive producers: Joseph F. Ingrassia, M. Janet Hill, John Cammarano
Director of photography: Henry Braham
Editor: Brett M. Reed
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales: Christopher Slager, Endeavor Content
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