Thursday, December 28, 2006

Film Review: "The Good Shepherd"

Written by Eric Roth, directed by Robert De Niro--who also produced it--along with Universal Studios and Morgan Creek, the film stars Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Bill Hurt, Robert Di Nero, and many, many others. It fails.

It tries to do too much (its 2-hour, 37 minute length underscores that fact) and fails to do the whole thing well. The acting suffers: it is too portentous and unrelentingly over-'meaningful'. The cast contains some usually wonderful actors; in fact, it includes one of the great actors of our time, De Niro, directing them, yet the actors' work seems over-restrained; wooden and self-conscious. Poor Jolie is simply miscast; so is Matt Damon, especially age-wise in the later scenes. Perhaps the production creators interpreted the subject matter (the CIA) in such a dark, enclosed manner that it doesn't allow the actors room to breathe.

The film is caringly and beautifully made; but the plot--the thread on which the rest of the film ultimately rests--is very confusing. Ostensibly it is the story about a young boy destined by class and heritage to attend Yale, whose father died when he was six, who hides and refuses to look at his father's suicide, including and especially his father's last letter to the family, and converts that developed talent of self-containment and secrecy into a life-long career at the CIA (beginning with its organizational fore-runner, the OSS) during WWII.

Counterintelligence becomes the young man's expertise, and paranoia becomes his point of view. Post-war US-versus-Russia is the film's major battlefield, including WWII, JFKennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. Ex-Russian spies and English intelligence and American spy-'spooks' act and counteract toward and against one with cleverly and deadly aplomb, and the intricate intelligence communities' policies of disinformation, distrust, torture and betrayal blend clumbsily and cynically into the film's perverse senses of respective national loyalties. Before the film is over, the young man's wife and son get involved, marital and family loyalty gets tested, and it all ends unhappily ever after.

What the details of the plot actually are, as they unfold--what is actually going on?--is confusing to me in any larger sense. It is difficult for me to summarize the story simply. Perhaps because the film creators were trying to do too much: tell a complicated espionage Cold War plot, follow a dysfunctional family story, document the historical/political highlights of 1930', 40' 50' and 60's, get in a little anti-Iraq analogies along the way, cast an unflttering light on the CIA, include some sex scenes, add a late interracial relationship, shine an unflattering light on WASP-America, including its secret college societies ("Skull and Bones") add a hint of possible homosexuality, etc. Too much.

The psychological/moral/human complexities of espionage operating the the same Cold War period is much better--and cleaner, more simply, and therefore more tellingly--achieved in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold", a great, truly great film, starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oscar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt, from a novel by John Le Carre. Take the money you would have spent on "The Good Shepherd" and rent that DVD.


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