Phil on Film Index
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Review - The Good Shepherd
With a story encompassing 22 years and a number of continents, a cast stuffed with first-rate talent, one of cinema’s most iconic figures behind the camera, and a running time approaching three hours, The Good Shepherd has the look and feel of an epic. This ambitious drama tells the story of the birth of the CIA, by focusing on a man who devoted his life to it, and it’s Robert De Niro’s first film as a director since his promising debut A Bronx Tale 13 years ago. One would like to see this long-gestating project rekindling De Niro’s passion for movies - his recent acting displays have seemed increasingly disinterested in the whole business - but I can’t see it getting a passionate response from anyone else.
The Good Shepherd is a film which has been made with great skill and care, but it’s an emotionally stunted picture which always keeps the viewers outside the story, never letting us get under the skin of the supposedly tortured figure at its centre. That figure is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a CIA agent who goes about his business with the utmost seriousness and dedication. He rarely displays a spark of humour, he keeps his emotions firmly in check, and he doesn’t speak unless he feels it’s absolutely necessary. As we see over the course of the picture, careless talk costs lives.
The film opens in 1961, with Wilson involved in secret plans for a US invasion of Cuba. Of course, we all know how that particular misadventure panned out, and a few days later, after the Bay of Pigs has become a very public fiasco, Wilson and his colleague Ray Brocco (John Turturro) are tasked with finding the mole who informed Castro of the impending attack. That night, Wilson finds a package on his doorstep containing a grainy photograph and a muffled audio reel seemingly recorded during a lovemaking session. Could this be the “stranger in the house”? As the CIA’s technical boffins begin filtering the evidence to try and find some clues, the story flashes back to 1939, to find a young Edward Wilson at Yale University.
The Good Shepherd continues to employ this structure over the course of the movie; the 1961 narrative is frequently interrupted by significant incidents from Edward’s past, until the two strands of the story finally dovetail in the climactic act. Our first glimpse of young Mr Wilson is a surprising one - fully dragged-up as Buttercup in a student production of HMS Pinafore - but the frivolity ends there. Wilson is invited into the University’s ultra-secret Skull and Bones society, after an weirdly homoerotic induction featuring cast-offs from Eyes Wide Shut and a spot of nude mud wrestling. Wilson’s watchful nature and fierce concentration doesn’t go unnoticed, and he is soon recruited by the FBI (represented by Alec Baldwin) to help expose the Nazi beliefs of his benevolent literary professor (Michael Gambon). From here, Edward’s path is set; a Skull and Bones party brings him into contact with Clover (Angelina Jolie), his future wife, and he also has a fateful meeting with General Bill Sullivan (De Niro) who asks him to go to London on a mission for the OSS.
There is a lot of potential on show in The Good Shepherd; and indeed, individual chunks of the film do live up to that potential. De Niro’s direction is confident and elegant: there are scenes here - such as a murder on a foggy London street, or the interrogation of a Russian agent - which really hit the mark, and he shows great judgement in the way his images and music are edited together. The whole film looks superb, with Robert Richardson’s typically excellent cinematography and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design proving particularly impressive, and as he showed in A Bronx Tale, De Niro has a good feel for the rhythms of a particular time and place.
Unfortunately, the problems inherent in The Good Shepherd are ultimately too serious for the merits to compensate, and one of its main disadvantages is right at the front and centre of the picture. The character of Edward Wilson is supposed to be a man who loses his soul in the fight for his country’s freedom, a man who gradually shrinks into himself and pushes away all those close to him in the process; but Wilson begins the film as a stiff, colourless blank, and there’s nowhere for his character to go. We get scraps of information about Wilson’s inner life, like his fondness for ships in bottles, or the trauma he still feels over the suicide of his father, but aside from that early Gilbert & Sullivan sojourn there’s no life about him. He keeps his feelings contained, often with good reason (every sexual encounter in the film has bad consequences), but De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth can’t figure out a way to let us peek behind the mask.
The frustrating opaqueness of Wilson isn’t Matt Damon’s fault, he gives a very intelligent and measured performance under the circumstances, but he can’t overcome his character’s essential coldness and it’s left to his co-stars to give the movie a human face. De Niro has assembled some of the most reliable supporting players in the business, and the turns offered by Baldwin, Gambon, Turturro, William Hurt (as Damon’s superior) and John Sessions (as a KGB defector, no less!) are top-notch. The director has even coaxed Joe Pesci out of semi-retirement to make his first screen appearance since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, but his one-scene cameo is too brief to really make an impression; and despite the generally fine casting instincts displayed by De Niro, he does leave a few actors stranded with roles they are ill-suited to. Angelina Jolie’s flirtatious performance brightens up the screen when she first appears, but she remains far too glamorous and sexualised for her gradual transformation into a neglected housewife. Billy Crudup is ridiculously misplaced as an upper-crust British spy, with his attempt at a English accent sounding more German than anything, and the director’s own cameo is as flat as we’ve come to expect from his recent screen appearances.
The Good Shepherd’s biggest flaw has nothing to do with the cast, though, and it has everything to do with the film’s scale. At 167 minutes the somnambulant pacing De Niro imposes on the picture becomes increasingly hard to take, with the unwaveringly serious, downbeat tone making it something of a slog; and while the director shows himself to be capable of shooting some excellent scenes, he has little idea how to fit the pieces together into a seamless whole. It’s a clumsily cluttered picture, and despite the surface complexity of the narrative, there’s not enough meat on the film’s bones to justify its epic length. The film’s central theme - fathers continually failing their sons - is depicted in a simplistic and literate manner which carries little resonance, and by the time the source of the leak is discovered in the late stages it’s hard to really care about any of the characters’ prospects.
There’s an impressively authentic feel to much of The Good Shepherd. The painstaking methods used by the CIA technicians to filter a photo or audio recording for clues are fascinating to watch, and the scenes in which spies surreptitiously pass information to each other are hugely enjoyable in a classic spy thriller way (Damon is asked for change of a dollar on the bus, when he gets to the office he uses the dollar’s serial number to decode vital information); but these are merely small moments of relief in a film which otherwise denies most of the standard filmgoing pleasures. It’s a character study with no character; a grim slog through the shadowy underworld of espionage which takes its cue from its central figure and ends up being nothing more than a heartless empty shell. As Edward Wilson walks down a grey corridor at the film’s climax, we’re supposed to be pondering the fate of a broken man, but we can’t bring ourselves to care because he remains such a remote figure. He could be any ordinary Joe walking to work, just another anonymous spoke in the wheel, and after spending 167 arduous minutes in his company, it’s not hard to feel a little cheated.