The Good Shepherd
Director : Robert De Niro
Screenplay : Eric Roth
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Matt Damon (Edward Bell Wilson), Angelina Jolie (Margaret Ann Russell), Alec Baldwin (Sam Murach), Tammy Blanchard (Laura), Billy Crudup (Arch Cummings), Robert De Niro (General Bill Sullivan), Keir Dullea (Senator John Russell, Sr.), Michael Gambon (Dr. Fredericks), Martina Gedeck (Hanna Schiller), William Hurt (Philip Allen), Timothy Hutton (Thomas Wilson)
In reviewing Robert Redford’s somber Oscar winner Ordinary People (1980), Pauline Kael theorized that, when popular actors turn to directing, they feel the need to “choose material as a penance for the frivolous good times they’ve given us.” While no one would accuse Robert De Niro’s career of being dominated by “frivolous good times” (unless you consider psychopathology and criminality under that heading), in recent years he has leaned fairly heavily toward comedies that send up his persona as a heavy, including Analyze This (1999) and its 2002 sequel, Meet the Parents (2001) and its 2004 sequel, Showtime (2002), and voice work in A Shark Tale (2004).
So, perhaps De Niro is feeling the need for some penance, which might explain why he has chosen The Good Shepherd as his sophomore directing effort, his first time behind the camera since 1993’s A Bronx Tale. While his first film was a modest, intimate drama, The Good Shepherd is a sprawling 159-minute opus covering nearly four decades as it tells a fictionalized version of the birth of the CIA. De Niro has been working on this project for nearly a decade, and it is clearly close to his heart. But, as too many other (and better) filmmakers have proved, pet projects that have been nurtured into existence over long periods of time often turn out to be not very good movies.
This is not to say that The Good Shepherd is entirely bad--it isn’t by any means. In fact, it has a number of impressive sequences and an intense, underlying slow burn that runs counter to so much of the soulless flash of Hollywood’s onslaught of overedited output (the cinematography by Robert Richardson, a favorite of Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, is classically elegant without being showy). Yet, the film is disappointingly bloodless, as if De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider) had gotten so caught up in the details that they lost sight of the emotional pull. Any time The Good Shepherd tries to get dramatic, it goes limp from the effort, straining to impress us with the human cost of the Cold War spy game.
The film’s central character is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who is loosely based on James Jesus Angelton, who founded CIA counterintelligence operations. The center point of the narrative is the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which Wilson is deeply involved. From there, it spins back in time to show us how he moved from being a bright Yale student in the 1930s, to a member of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, to becoming the quiet, steady backbone of the U.S.’s burgeoning intelligence operations during the escalating Cold War.
Few young actors are better at portraying steely smarts and emotional recalcitrance than Damon, and even if he never looks like he’s a forty-something-year-old man, he fares extremely well under De Niro’s direction. Wilson remains an enigmatic character throughout, a dense man of few words whose reserved exterior (he favors gray suits and monochrome ties) hides a deep reserve of emotional trauma stemming from his witnessing his father’s suicide at age six. It is daring of De Niro to structure his film around a character so blunt and impenetrable, and this decision is both the film’s strength and its downfall.
Wilson’s density demands attention, and you may find yourself scrutinizing Damon’s every glance and shift of body weight. The story is filled with lies and mistruths, the ammunition of espionage, which keeps the film involving even when it starts to run long in the tooth. Yet, whenever we are asked to become emotionally involved with Wilson’s family life, especially his loveless marriage to a woman he married only because she got pregnant (Angelina Jolie), the film grinds to a halt. It is infinitely better when indulging in the details of spy work, particularly an extended sequence showing how 1960s-era technology could take a photograph and an audiotape and narrow down where exactly in the world it was recorded.
Given his credentials, De Niro was able to round up an impressive cast, including Jon Turturro as Wilson’s righthand man (their first meeting is the film’s one humorous moment), Alec Baldwin as the FBI agent who first lures Wilson into spy work as a college student, William Hurt as the CIA’s first director, and Michael Gambon as a Yale professor who becomes Wilson’s first lesson in betraying and being betrayed. De Niro even managed to get Joe Pesci, who hasn’t been on screen since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 (perhaps he’s been doing his own penance), to show up for a brief role.
But, despite its impressive cast list and oozing of quality from every frame, The Good Shepherd never comes into its own. It’s too somber and sluggishly paced, to the point that characters move slowly, as if to underscore just how important and grave everything is. Taking a different approach to the spy genre is certainly noble, and De Niro nails the period detail and the overall feeling of what it must have been like to be caught up in Cold War espionage. However, it is exactly that sense of intensity and suffocation without an emotional core that ultimately chokes the film.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Universal Pictures