A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 

 

RANK: # 3

 

THE GOOD SHEPHERD jjjj

2006, R, 167 mins.

 

Edward Wilson: Matt Damon / Clover Wilson: Angelina Jolie / Sam Murach: Alec Baldwin / Arch Cummings: Billy Crudup / Bill Sullivan: Robert De Niro / Sen. Russell: Keir Dullea

Directed by Robert De Niro /  Written by Eric Roth

Robert DeNiroís THE GOOD SHEPHERD Ė his first film as a director since his sublime 1993 coming of age story, A BRONX TALE Ė is a passionate, confident, and masterfully told tale of intrigue.  DeNiro has already established himself as arguably the greatest actor of his generation, and now his grand, ambitious, and intricately detailed look at the birth and early years of the CIA has established him as a major filmmaker. 

The film works at its finest when it details the shadowy and murky underpinnings of the agency, its Cold Warriors who are forced to live lives obsessively by immoral codes of conduct, and the way their power wrecks the moral fabrics of their lives.  Patriotic fixation surrounds DeNiroís story and characters, so much so that readily identifiable protagonists and antagonists are not easily defined.  Told with a methodical and well measured pacing, impeccably strong performances, and richly and patiently draw suspense, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is a thoughtful, complex, and utterly absorbing masterpiece of espionage and blind allegiance.

It has been said that the screenplay of the film (impeccably conceived and expertly laid out by Eric Roth, who also penned last yearís best film, the equally politically charged MUNICH) has been floating around in development hell as one of the great, unproduced scripts of the last decade.  It passed through a relative whoís who of Hollywood directorial elite Ė from the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Kauffman, and John Frankenheimer Ė before DeNiro set his sights on it.  

In fine form, DeNiro breaks the usual cinematic sophomore slump of directors with great first films with his stirring and incredibly nuanced character drama.  Perhaps the finest element of the film is in its build-up and discrete patience it has with the material.  Clocking in at nearly three hours, THE GOOD SHEPHERD could have felt laboriously long and dull considering the subject matter.  DeNiro is able to supremely reign in the epic screenplay, which covers vast time periods and locations, and weaves and interweaves both backwards and forward in time, with the perseverance and timing.  The film is completely hinged on DeNiroís abilities here to orchestrate the oftentimes dizzying, labyrinthian structured, and lucid script by Roth into a cohesive and manageable work that sustains itself despite all of its divergent material.  This, in itself, is no easy feat, and for DeNiro Ė a relative novice filmmaker Ė to command such authority and confidence in the material is noteworthy.  This is filmmaking at its most mature and articulate.

Just as intriguing is the grunt perspective of Americaís then-developing foreign espionage agency.  Past films with the similar subject matters have often zeroed-in on the more romanticized elements of the spy game.  But what Roth and DeNiro do here is de-mystify intelligence work by making it anything but romanticized.  The overall theme of their work here is that higher ups make the calls and itís the men and women at the lower echelon that are forced to do the thankless tasks for God and country.  THE GOOD SHEPHERD understands that perhaps the real heroes (if they could be called that) of the CIA were the ones that engaged in endless analysis and dissecting of intelligence data.  Their work is probably the least appreciated, as it is the basis by which the agency engages in its missions. 

Because these people lead compartmentalized lives, it is very appropriate for the actors in the roles to be efficiently subdued in underplaying their performances.  These are people that live in shells and are trained to not show any discernable emotion.  Thatís precisely why Matt Damonís tour-de-force performance as Edward Wilson Ė a CIA task man Ė is so chilling and calculating.  He is not a typical genre film spy.  Heís not James Bond and he definitely is no Jason Bourne (some comparisons to his character in THE GOOD SHEPHERD and the latter one mentioned seems kind of inevitable). 

Heís a man of limited social skills beyond what the agency has trained him to use.  He speaks every little, only when warranted, keeps his feelings in check, and professes a deep, heartfelt passion to his agency and country when Ė oddly enough Ė he is a man of limited passion.   It is surely one of 2006ís most thankless and demanding roles in the sense that it requires an actor who can throw away any theatrical flourishes and instead play it with a resonating level of soft-spokeness and strength.  Like the filmís screenplay, Damonís layered portrayal here slowly and patiently develops this manís egregious, almost fanatical, loyalty to his job that ultimately grows to haunt and destroy his life.  Thatís the key to THE GOOD SHEPHERD.  Itís about how diehard patriotism and stern loyalty makes one go down a road where decisions made out of professional necessity can inevitably have disastrous consequences.  Itís about how good, moral men become amoral without any turning back.

The movie begins in 1961 and alternates back and forth between this time and the 30ís, 50ís, and 60ís.  At first we see the events leading to and after the infamous "Bay of Pigs" invasion, which history has shown to be a debacle of epic proportions.  Edward Wilson is high up on the CIA ladder, and since he is one of a very few that are aware of this top-secret operation, he is held in suspicion.  Senator Phillip Allen (in another effortlessly effective performance by William Hurt) is in charge of reporting everything to President Kennedy and now he needs answers as to why the Cuban invasion failed so miserably.  The problem for Wilson and company is that the details of the mission are so rigidly guarded.  So, someone must have leaked Intel to the Soviets that there was a plot afoot to overthrow Fidel Castro.

It soon becomes Wilsonís job to find the source of the leak and ďdeal with it.Ē  His long and arduous journey leads to many unexpected tangents, especially in the form of a very grainy and washed out surveillance photo and even more terrible audiotape.  The snippets of information that he gets from the tape indicate that the man making love to the woman leaked the mission to her.  There are even more clues, which leads to the filmís longest running and brilliantly crafted subplot where the tech heads at CIA very slowly are able to decipher the most minute details from the photo and tape to narrow down the suspect.  The manner with which they are able to get clues is astounding.  They dissect the audiotape to reveal church bells in the background, look at the drapes on the walls in the background of the picture to determine manufacturer and point of sale, and they even use the ceiling fan in the image as a clue to the location.  The unfolding mystery of the perpetrator is THE GOOD SHEPHERDís most transfixing element.

While Wilson is on the manhunt the film jumps backwards and forward in time to Wilsonís origins in the agency.  1961 is the year that essentially frames the rest of their narrative back in time.  The film dives back to see Wilsonís time as an undergraduate at Yale.  We see a young man that has not quite reached the American archetype of the Vulcan-like, grey suited, thick rimmed spectacled covert man.  He is a nice, friendly, poetry-loving student, born into wealth and privilege.  Soon, he is asked to join a secret fraternity called Skull and Bones in 1939 and it is here where he meets a man that will change his life forever, John Russell Jr. (Gabriel Macht).  Johnís father (played by Keir DulleaÖyesÖDavid Bowman from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) is a very powerful senator who plays a role in Wilsonís future to come.

While at Yale, Wilson develops a tender and sweet romance with a pretty Catholic girl named Laura (Tammy Blanchard).  Soon, his social life takes a turn south when it appears that an FBI agent named Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin, ozzing cool) recruits Wilson to spy on his poetry professor, Dr. Fredericks (the great Michael Gambon) who is rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer.  Wilson balks at first, but nevertheless takes the challenge of spying on the teacher.  Why?  Maybe because, since childhood, Wilson has been good at keeping secrets and his stoic demeanor gives him a one-of-a-kind poker face.  Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that Fredericks pawns off others' poetry to Wilsonís as his own and makes a homosexual advance on him.

Needless to say,  Wilson is so good at what he does that it catches the eye of Bill Sullivan (DeNiro, refreshingly going back to his roots here in a dramatic role), a government agent that thinks that Wilson has the right stuff for a new government agency he wishes to develop.  In a scene that is subtly Faustian, Sullivan appeals to Wilsonís skills and successfully gets him to take a post for the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Defense).  This, of course, proves to have disastrous results for his personal life. 

At the time he had long since dumped his deaf girlfriend and married Senator Russellís daughter,  Clover (Angelina Jolie).  He is married to her only out of wedlock.  They have a relationship of phone calls and small conversations for the first few years of marriage.  When Wilson returns home his 5-year-old son barely knows him.  As the script jumps forward in time intermittently, we see Wilson join the ranks of the CIA and his growing involvement in the Bay of Pigs scandal, all while trying to be a good father to his growing son (played as an adolescent by Eddie Reymane).  When he finally learns the identity of the traitor from the audiotape and photo, Wilson is forced to make choices that could torment him for the rest of his professional and personal life.

Iíve gone at great length to discuss the plot of THE GOOD SHEPHERD, but my synopsis does not do its scope and breadth any justice.  The film, at its core, is fiercely ambitious in terms of locale, story, characters, and themes.  Interlocking stories disjointed by time seems to be the norm these days, but DeNiro sidesteps the more obviousness of the technique and uses it to his advantage.  A linear storyline might not have worked as efficiently or effectively.  Wilson is a man of pesky details, so itís suitable to see his life hinted at in flashbacks intermittently through the movie. 

Mirroring Wilsonís own investigation to a degree, the audience grows to learn more about his character by piecing together the segments of his life as they are thrown at us.  This ultimately allows for the film to maintain its pace and forward momentum and not become sluggish.  Itís a real one-two punch narrative:  We want to know who the Cold War traitor is plus we yearn to learn more about a man who never revels to anyone whom he really is.  In this manner, THE GOOD SHEPHERD works like CITIZEN KANE in the sense that its disjointed script gives us details of the character's life here and there, but only at the end can we put all of the pieces of the puzzle together to get an all-encompassing whole.  THE GOOD SHEPHERD is not relentlessly paced like many action thrillers, but itís just as intriguing and Ė at times Ė even more surprising in its payoffs.

The film is graced by stellar performances all around, which may have benefited by having a gifted actor in the directorís chair.  William Hurt, in a small role, is quietly calculating as a mentor figure to Wilson.  Other supporting performances, like Billy Crudup as a British spy and John Turturro as Wilsonís right hand man, are solid.  Turturro is especially powerful as a sardonic and wisecracking agent who is prone to acts of wanton violence and aggression at a momentís notice (a interrogation scene with him is especially gruesome).  Angelina Jolie also reminds the audience that when you are willing to forget her media-fuelled baggage and personal relationships, she is a forceful and invigorating presence on screen.  She is able to harness her grieving wife figure with the right amount of hurtful contempt for her husband and introverted sadness and spite.

Ultimately, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is spearheaded by Matt Damonís cold and shrewd turn as a Cold War operative that wants a life of normalcy, but is unable to because of his oftentimes-unethical job.  Many critics have commented on the lack of a strong arc to his character.  They miss the point.  Edward Wilson is a man that started being noble-minded and became engulfed in a world that bathed in moral uncertain at every turn.  There is a dark and underlining bleakness that stresses his life.  He is a patriot, but he rigidly questions his values and motives, especially when his investigation leads him down an alley he wants to avoid but canít. 

The arc of the character is that he has none.  Wilson is a man so impregnated by the virtues of his own strident faithfulness to his country that he can never divorce himself from them.  Even when circumstances get deeply personal for him, he still can't seem to decide between God and country or his personal life.  Does choosing his family over work overturn everything that he has based his career and life on?  Whatís more patriotic:  Honoring oneís profession in the line of duty or challenging it when the duty lacks virtue?  THE GOOD SHEPHERD, when dealing with the conscience-driven dilemmas that Wilson faces, is unmistakably powerful.

With a story and characters that spans decades, individual sub-plots that interweave upon themselves, plot twists and payoffs that are genuinely surprising, and performances and direction that are Oscar caliber, Robert DeNiroís THE GOOD SHEPHERD is a sure-fire, Cold War espionage classic.   Under the directorís precise and cunning tutelage, and a script by Eric Roth that is richly detailed and exemplary in terms of layout, the film creates an unmistakable milieu of the early years of the CIA and how stone-cold and autonomous agents used their power within it to corrupt their own loyalty to their countrymen.  By sidestepping the usual action that permeates political thrillers, DeNiro and company instead create an eerie verisimilitude in their fictional take on the birth of the CIA but focusing on the bureaucracy of skullduggery that the young agency faced.  More than anything, THE GOOD SHEPHERD reveals the passion of its director for the story in every frame and his minutely plotted and incredibly sustained political potboiler thatís intelligent and absorbing.  It is one of 2006ís most painstakingly tailored films.

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