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Good Shepherd, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 December 2006
“The Good Shepherd” has a potentially intriguing subject—the creation of the CIA—and fittingly covers a long time span, from the 1930s to the early 1960s. And lord knows there’s enough material there for any number of movies. Robert De Niro, here directing for the second time, has been hoping to launch this film for some time; for a while, Francis Ford Coppola intended to direct it, and still serves as one of the producers.

Clearly the idea was to make an understated movie, one that demonstrates the negative possibilities inherent in a group that, in short, spies on almost everyone, without overtly stating them. To a degree, “The Good Shepherd” succeeds, but at a cost. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), the central character, is at one point described as a serious guy with no sense of humor—and that he is. Which makes him a rather boring central subject. It’s not a question of Damon’s performance; he is convincing at any of the several ages he plays. It’s just that Wilson has learned to withhold his emotions, his trust, his very self—he has created a dull persona. This causes him some personal problems and has led to a joyless life; his profession results in some triumphs but also some major tragedies and blunders.

The movie is hinged on one of these blunders: the disastrous Bay Of Pigs incident of 1961. The CIA put together an invasion force of young Cubans hoping to wrest Cuba back from the rule of Fidel Castro, but the attack was uncovered—probably exposed by a double agent—and easily thwarted by Castro’s army. We see poker-faced Wilson deal with this crisis, and gradually coming to suspect that his boss Philip Allen (William Hurt) may have released the information that allowed the Cubans to triumph.

The story flashes back to the late 1930s and Yale, where Wilson is energetically playing Buttercup in a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.” He’s also inducted into the secret, elitist Skull and Bones Society, which proves important throughout his life. He admires British Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), head of the poetry department, who invites Wilson to become the student leader—and who makes a genteel pass at him. Wilson is approached by Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin), who reveals himself as an FBI agent and that Fredericks may be a Nazi sympathizer.

While discovering a poem Fredericks claimed to be working on was actually written by someone else, Wilson meets and is strongly attracted to deaf fellow student Laura (Tammy Blanchard). Partly because of Fredericks’ attempt at claiming credit for something he didn’t do, partly because he learns the older man IS a Nazi sympathizer, he turns him in to Murach (who again is important throughout Wilson’s career).
At a lavish party at the estate of a senator (Keir Dullea, and where has HE been?), Wilson is seduced by the senator’s sexy daughter Margaret, who prefers to be called Clover (Angelina Jolie). He’s approached by handicapped Naval officer Bill Sullivan (De Niro) to join an espionage group being set up prior to the U.S. entering what is shaping up as World War II. Wilson’s heart remains with Laura—until Clover’s brother (Gabriel Macht), a classmate, reveals she’s pregnant.

He’s sent to Berlin, where he acquires a briskly efficient, sardonic secretary, Ray Brocco (John Turturro), and makes some new contacts—not exactly friends—including Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup) and Philip Allen. He also occasionally exchanges messages with his opposite number in the Soviet Army, who uses the code name Ulysses. He also learns the viciously cruel cost of espionage, and how easy it is to become an unwitting tool of other spies.

After the war, returns home to Clover, who now uses her original name of Margaret, and whom he barely knows. In his absence, she gave birth to his only son, Edward, Jr. He’s in Berlin for a while, in a segment that oddly relates to “The Good German.” Later, Sullivan is in charge of changing the O.S.S., the military espionage group for which Wilson has been working, into the civilian C.I.A. Wilson, of course, comes along: he’s a sharp, insightful master of details, and sometimes adept at reading the real intentions of those on the other side. The cold war years lead to another contact with Ulysses (Oleg Stefan) and a defecting Russian (John Sessions) who may not be all he claims.

The movie is essentially a series of flashbacks, at one point a flashback WITHIN a flashback, as Wilson remembers when he was six years old and his Navy officer father (Timothy Hutton) urges him always to be truthful, never to lie, and he will always be trustworthy. Then he shoots himself.

By 1961, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) has himself joined the FBI, but Edward Sr., discovers that his lifelong habit of never talking to his wife or son about his job—or, in reality, about much of anything—has led to a gap in their relationship which is probably unbridgeable. The movie is therefore also about the troubled relationships of fathers and sons. And it’s another object lesson that one should always leave work at the office. Wilson has repressed his emotions so long—he only uncorks a little in a brief reunion with Laura—that he cannot express them—perhaps doesn’t even feel them.

Damon clearly gives the performance De Niro wanted as director; all the performances are somewhat tamped down—except for Redmayne and De Niro himself—to convey the seriousness of the environment. Jolie is fine, but it’s curious why such a sensual actress would be cast in a role that requires her to hide that aspect. Redmayne is intense, and has his movie mother’s lips, but if anything, he’s a little too high-strung.

“The Good Shepherd” is handsomely realized, with excellent production design by Jeannine Claudia Oppewall that realistically recreates several eras. The widescreen cinematography by Robert Richardson is versatile, but as understated as Damon’s performance. The score is largely devoted to songs of the various periods; Yale’s “The Whiffenpoof Song” is heard several times at Skull and Bones gatherings, including on their sumptuous private island.

But De Niro has erred, partly in length (over three hours), partly in understating almost everything, but primarily in pacing. While the movie is rarely actually slow, it is also never fast, never changes tempo at all. It’s as carefully measured at the slightly ambiguous ending as it is in scenes during the Cold War conflict. (Although there is an intense, disturbing interrogation scene partway through, and a sequence in which the CIA bombards a Central American coffee plantation with locusts is surprising and almost exciting.)

The movie should have built tension around the question of who spilled the Bay of Pigs beans, but this never happens. William Hurt’s character never seems aware that he’s under suspicion. (Incidentally, though the film does tell the history of the CIA, at least in broad strokes, it’s not a docudrama; none of the characters are given the real names of those prominent in CIA history; Hurt’s character may be partly derived from Allen Dulles, the civilian mastermind of the organization, but it’s definitely not a one-to-one connection.)

The intention was to make an epic about a part of American politics that’s rarely covered in realistic detail—but there are plenty of details here, including an interesting sequence in which a blurry photograph is analyzed for all its possible information. But at the heart of the movie is organization man Edward Wilson, careful, intelligent, but humorless, and whose reluctance to give of himself, at the end, leaves him isolated and friendless. He’s a well-drawn character, but not one you really want to spend three hours with.

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