Monday, April 9, 2007

The Good Shepherd

Director: Robert DeNiro
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Tammy Blanchard, John Turturro, Gabriel Macht, Timothy Hutton, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Oleg Stefan, Keir Dullea

Running Time: 167 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

The Good Shepherd
is an incredibly well made, ambitious and impeccably acted motion picture that will likely bore you to tears. History buffs will adore a movie like this as it really does an excellent job covering every facet of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency and does manage to tell an engaging and intelligent story featuring interesting characters and situations. However, audiences just looking for some entertainment and escapism will have to search elsewhere.

After I was done watching all 2 hours and 45 minutes of it I tried to think of the right word to describe my experience. Then it hit me. Laborious. Watching this film was a laborious exercise. It felt like a chore. Almost like I was in history class with a professor who would tell the same story over and over, changing a couple of details along the way. I suppose here is where I make a crack about how DeNiro shouldn't quit his day job, but I'm not going to do that because this is a well directed film that, despite its gargantuan length, is never self-indulgent. You can tell it was made with great love for the story and DeNiro has clearly done his homework as it looks and feels like it's from the golden age of 70's cinema. As a director, he probably has a great work in him somewhere. This just wasn't it.

The movie opens in 1961 with the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro due to some kind of informer or leak. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is anonymously sent a photograph and a reel to reel to tape that could possibly be a clue to the identity of the informant. We then flash back to 1939 and Edward's college years at Yale which includes his membership into the infamous Skull and Bones Society and his romance with a deaf student (played very well by Tammy Blanchard). A standout poetry student, Edward forms a bond with his poetry professor Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon) until he's recruited by an F.B.I agent (Alec Baldwin) to spy on him, believing his Frederick's German cultural society is actually a Nazi front. Reluctantly he takes the assignment, impressing Bill Sullivan (DeNiro in a small role), who sends him to work overseas for the Office of Strategic Services, which would later become the C.I.A.

The deeper the disciplined and emotionless Edward gets into the organization the more he finds himself in conflict with his own personal beliefs. He cheats on the love of his life with a respected Senator's daughter named Clover (Angelina Jolie) and marries her only because she's carrying his son. He rationalizes that he's "doing what's right", but you see that's the catch. Do what Edward's been doing long enough and see if you can even tell what right is anymore, or whether it even matters. The secrets and lies rip him and his family apart. He's not the same man and soon must make a difficult, if not impossible, choice between his personal and professional life if he wants to rise through the ranks of the C.I.A.

The movie tells what's actually a simple story in a very convoluted way as it jumps back and between timelines constantly. At times I found great difficulty trying to figure out whether we were in 1939 or 1961 and it wasn't made any easier by the fact that Damon's character didn't appear to age one bit. That actually isn't a problem per se (the last thing we need is to be distracted by an unconvincing make-up job), but it sure had an impact in deciphering what year it was. Sometimes a subtitle would appear in the corner of the screen letting us know what time period we're in. Sometimes it wouldn't. We'd spend an hour in 1961 and then we're in 1939 for two minutes. Then vice versa. The film doesn't flow well and when it runs close to 3 hours that's the last thing that should happen.

The real meat and potatoes of the picture is during Edward's time at Yale when he's still an idealistic, disciplined student losing his innocence as his eyes are being opened to the covert operations of our government. Once the film exits that territory everything after it becomes redundant. It's like a history lesson. We know what the C.I.A. did, but in case you didn't it's reenacted for you in pain staking detail for nearly 2 hours. You can tell a lot of work went into this script (as it's based on the life of the C.I.A's founding father James A. Angleton), but I'm not sure to what end. At times it felt like DeNiro was adapting a novel, but refused to cut anything out and just handed the book to the actors as scripts. It's a very dry, sterile film. Not necessarily boring, just tedious.

Part of what makes this film so difficult to connect with is Damon's performance as Edward. While he gives a performance that's completely necessary and appropriate for the film, it's an uninvolving one for the audience. Given the nature of the character and the situation, Damon can never show his cards and must act with cold, deliberate precision as Edward. He does an excellent job, but since there's no glimmer of any personality or emotion it's hard to care about him. If we can't care about the protagonist it's obviously difficult to care about the story. As long as Edward keeps us at arm's length, so does DeNiro.

Rounding out the stellar cast is Billy Crudup, William Hurt, John Turturro, Gabriel Macht, Joe Pesci, Timothy Hutton and Keir Dullea. Given the topic and DeNiro's pedigree it's not hard to see how all these major talents signed on, but you might be surprised, through no fault of their own, how little they all contribute despite the lengthy running time. Blame Eric Roth's dense script for that. The movie delivers what it believes to be a major twist in the last half hour involving the Bay of Pigs leak and presents it as being Earth shattering. It isn't and by the time you get there you likely won't care because, like the story, you'll be out of gas. I know I was. I understand what the movie was trying to do, but it has a real struggle getting there. Everything seems harder and longer than it needs to be.

You can tell DeNiro was trying to make an epic about family loyalty in the United States in the vain of The Godfather, which makes sense since Francis Ford Coppola was a producer on this project and at one point was even attached to direct. It would have been interesting to see what Coppola would have done with it and certainly would have been a welcome return to form for him after popcorn drivel like Jack and The Rainmaker. As is though, DeNiro delivers basically a facsimile of what we would have seen had Coppola helmed it as it has a real throwback quality that I actually liked. It's beautifully shot, features great performances but is completely inaccessible. I'm looking forward to DeNiro's next film, hoping it's less bloated and more willing to let us in.

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