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Movie Review: The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd
Directed by Robert De Niro
Written by Eric Roth

The Good Shepherd is an immensely ambitious task for director Robert De Niro, who last directed 1993’s coming-of-age crime drama A Bronx Tale.  The film, loaded with a number of characters played by name actors, attempts to construct the beginnings of the CIA, in a plot that spans over thirty years, mainly from the end of World War II to after the Bay of Pigs.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, playing an affectless, completely cold-blooded type that would give his Tom Ripley character a scare) is recruited from Yale’s secret, elite Skull and Bones group into the early U.S. intelligence community, one that is set up to square off against the KGB in the Cold War era.  The U.S. looks for pointers from the British Secret Service, here represented by Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon) and Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup).  It’s here that Wilson learns the dirty, soul-sucking job that being a spy is.

Wilson has a wife and kid back home, Clover (Angelina Jolie), is knocked up by Wilson after a one-night stand (or was she already pregnant?), having him “do the right thing” and marry her and leave his true love, Laura (Tammy Blanchard).  For the first six years of their marriage, as Wilson learns the tricks of the trade, the husband and wife hardly know each other.

Joined by a military recruit, Ray Brocco (John Turturro), in a department run by Philip Allen (William Hurt), the focus of the movie is on how the Bay of Pigs turned into such a botched operation.  The CIA receives a tape of a romantic tryst that contains the possible answer, a cleaning and brushing of audio reminiscent of The Conversation. 

FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) throws in his occasional help.  A russian defector named Valentin Mironov (John Sessions) trades secrets for asylum.  And ultimately, Edward Wilson squares off and trades secrets with KGB agent Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), in the movie’s eerie theme of intelligence agencies creating more world unrest to continue working.  Eventually, Wilson’s son, Ed Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) grows up and wants to be a part of dad’s secret life.  Holy crap!  How many plot developments are in one freaking movie?

For a very good portion of this film, I dug the hell out of it.  The setup is great, and though it moves in a slow manner, it’s engrossing, like a book you don’t want to blow through too fast.  Edward Wilson, as played by Matt Damon, might seem like some sort of drone to the casual viewer, frustrating them with his lack of emotion, but it’s this very trait that makes him such an appalling human being, and Damon manages to find a lot in this limited range.

But when the movie reveals its secrets, it begins to unravel a bit.  Multiple viewings will likely be rewarded, because there are so many characters and so many plot points, if you look sideways from the screen for one moment, you might be screwed.  Unfortunately, how many people in the world will want to sit through it again, knowing the running time and knowing that it never quite moves briskly?

To me, this is an almost great film.  It’s very good with patience.  Depending on that, you might find it a long, boring ride indeed.


Comment from KW
Time: January 2, 2007, 11:41 am

Well, I can certainly get through a movie that most folks would say is boring…but some movies are just boring for pretty much everyone. I was afraid that’s what this film would be…but it sounds like there’s some reward there for viewers who stick with it.

Comment from DannyNoonan
Time: January 7, 2007, 1:22 pm

I put this movie just behind Big Momma’s House 2 on my all time list. I think the word “unwatchable” comes to mind. I think this is the first time I’ve had a serious disagreement with you about any movie and I’m seriously baffled that you found anything positive to say about it. It tried too hard to be artistic, had too many plots–all boring, had absolutely no suspense–not good for a spy movie, and it sure never met a cliche it didn’t like. And what’s with all those long still shots and operatic singing in weird places? And could they have found a more annoying pussy to play Matt Damon’s son? I give it zero out of four stars. It was that bad. I get mad when I think about this movie. If I had known it was three hours when I walked in, I definately would have walked out after the first hour.

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: January 7, 2007, 2:41 pm

Believe me, Danny, I’m in accord with you on many of your points here, especially about Damon’s annoying pussy of a son. And I can totally see people hating the hell out of this movie. But I liked how it began, all the way up to the Michael Gambon/London scenes, then I thought it kind of unraveled. But no doubt, as I’ve seen later on other reviews and the IMDb, this movie is polarizing.

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