The Good Shepherd review by Jackass Tom

I've always been skeptical of actors who decide to direct, but when it comes to Robert De Niro I'll keep an open mind. De Niro seems to be very intelligent guy and as an actor he is extremely well-rounded and can adapt to a wide variety of roles. He has worked with some of the greatest directors (Scorsese, Copolla, Mann, etc.) so I'm sure he has learned his fair share. The Good Shepherd was a project he had been toying with for about 10 years before he finally executed it in 2006. When it came out it had high expectations and was drawing comparisons to some of the movies he had starred in. While definitely a fine movie in its own right, Shepherd doesn't seem to meet the heavenly expectations.

The Good Shepherd opens in 1961. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is involved in CIA activities around the time that they are planning to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro (a.k.a The Bay of Pigs). Hidden messages and codes are passed around between Damon and other CIA operatives to enable the go ahead plans. As we are shown (and as history would remind us), the invasion was a complete flop. The Cuban’s were ready for a U.S. sneak attack. Suspicions rise that the Cuban army was tipped off and information leaked the airtight organization. Within the CIA, control of intelligence is everything and if the intelligence leaks the whole ship sinks. Trust is everything in the intelligence industry.

The movie then flashes twenty years back to events in a young Edward Wilson’s life to show how to this point. He was always quiet and tight-lipped although when he was younger a bit more ‘lively. ’ He studied poetry at Yale and had a thing for deaf chicks (the irony being, he didn’t talk much and they couldn’t listen). He was recruited to join the super-secret Skulls and Bones society (imagine the Stonecutter’s episode of the Simpsons). Through the Skulls and Bones he meets General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro, who also directs the film) and who recruits the quiet young man for a U.S. Intelligence job (“Do you wanna see the world?”). Through the Skulls he also meets his future wife Margaret (Angelina Jolie). Their marriage was a bit of a rush job as was their courtship. It essentially boiled down to Margaret (Jolie) picking the accountant looking Edward (Damon) out of a crowd of virile dudes and thrusting herself upon him physically; an unfortunate event that that used to happen to this critic far too often. A week after their shotgun wedding, Wilson takes his first assignment to work in London with the British Intelligence in an effort to help defeat the Nazi’s.

His career builds on what he learns about intelligence and counter-intelligence from the British. He uses the skilles that he learned in London as his role quickly shifts from the Nazi’s to stopping the spread of communism and defeating the Soviets. But as his career progresses, his personal life becomes more cold and distant. With each passing duty, he loses a bit more of his personality and his soul. Wilson always absorbs more information than he provides which is probably why he makes such a good intelligence man but it eventually gets to the point where his work interferes with all other aspects of his life. He also begins makes decisions everyday on who gets killed in what country, which political party should be in power in which country, and so on. None of this he can talk about to his family. It’s sort of like when Michael Corleone took over the family business. The lines between the CIA and the mob are very transparent in The Good Shepherd.

Issues of trust and friendship through trust are constant throughout the film. From the time Wilson joins the Skulls, his trust is brought into question and tested. Everyone he meets while working through the CIA is questionalble. The movie constantly switches-back and makes you think twice about all characters and their intentions. I’m glad I saw this first on DVD because I constantly had to review scenes, pause, and try to figure out which side specific characters were on. Although trust is verbally enforced, his work in the CIA does nothing but breed dishonesty, deception, and lies. The movie does a great job of constantly of showing actions reflecting this paradox affecting Wilson professionally and personally.

The scenes involving CIA processes for analyzing evidence are technically amazing. There is one piece of film in particular they analyze that at face value seems to be devoid of any usable information. Its a few minutes of grainy black and white film showing a couple making love, and muttering a few inaudible comments. The CIA agents breakdown everything even remotely identifiable in the room and trace back possible origins (“The fan is made in Belgium and could be found in these cities…”). Every frequency of audio is broken down to identify not only speech but surrounding sounds (“You can hear an airplane taking off, probably at about 1000 ft.”) Everything is picked apart, examined, broken down and then finally built back up again to create a story. These moments were probably the most amazing in the movie.

Overall, however, the movie was long (165 minutes which is just a quarter under 3 hours) and it felt long. The pace of the movie is in constant flux between engaging/exciting and then deliberately slow bordering on boring. What I don’t understand is how this happened considering I felt that the whole courtship between Jolie and Damon was completely rushed and seemed so unreal. I still find myself questioning how in the world they got together in the first place or rather why she pursued the boring, accountant-like Damon so aggressively. Another minor detail that bothered me was how Damon’s character didn’t seem to age in the 20 year span that movie presents him in. Meanwhile his wife played by Jolie shows wrinkles and grey hair. In a movie where the characters constantly breakdown any and all details, is hard to ignore some details about the movie itself.

De Niro gave a lot of care to this film. It seems he wanted to make something great with this one and he came pretty close but unfortunately a few flaws prevent it from achieving this greatness but it still makes for a very good film. There are still some questions that go unanswered towards the end of the film that can be debated amongst friends; which for film buffs is always a fun exercise. The supporting cast is excellant and includes Billy Crudup, John Turturro (its been too long since I've seen him in a new film), Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, and Michael Gambon. For its technical mastery, CIA tricks, and overall “who can I trust feel” I do recommend viewing it but its unfortunate that the film couldn’t be wrapped a bit tighter to make more of a masterpiece.

7 out of 10 Jackasses
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