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Good Shepherd, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Fascinating And Frustrating In Equal Measure"
4 stars

Even though it marks only his second time in the director’s chair, Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd” is the kind of impossibly ambitious epic that even the most skilled of veterans would never even attempt to undertake. Not only does it tackle an amazingly complex subject–a look at the formative years of the CIA through the eyes of a key player whose own life will parallel both the agency’s early noble ambitions and its eventual descent into power-hungry corruption and paranoia–but it wants to do so in a way that will transform what could have been pulp-thriller elements into an elegiac epic along the lines of “The Godfather.” Perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t quite come off as well as one might have hoped–it is too long, too dour and too diffuse for its own good–but it does contain a lot of fascinating individual elements and while De Niro isn’t quite able to pull them together into a completely satisfying whole, he at least deploys them in a compellingly watchable manner that allows you to overlook the fact that it doesn’t quite work until long after the end credits have finished rolling.

Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson (a fictional character loosely inspired by the real-life CIA counter-espionage expert James Angleton), a young man from the finest imaginable stock–well-to-do family, Ivy League education, admittance into the ultra-exclusive secret society Skull & Bones–who in 1939 is recruited by a shadowy G-man(Alec Baldwin) into helping him expose a professor (Michael Gambon) who has been accused of serving as a Nazi front. He pulls it off in such a slick and efficient manner that he catches the eye of a higher-ranking official, Bill Sullivan (De Niro), who informs Edward that America will eventually be entering the war and that his espionage skills could be put to good use overseas. Once America goes to war, Edward goes overseas as part of the OSS and begins a lifetime career of skullduggery and deceit. He spends the war proper putting out counter-intelligence and when the conflict begins to end, he gets involved in battling the Russians to smuggle much-needed German rocket scientists out of Berlin. After returning home from the war, he is invited by Marshall to join the Central Intelligence Agency, a group conceived as a domestically-based version of the OSS, and spends the next decade-plus in the thick of Cold War shenanigans as the agency grows increasingly powerful thanks to its ongoing battle against the forces of Communism. This culminates in the film with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, whose failure provides the film’s framework as Edward slowly investigate the possibility that it may have been due to a leak from within the agency.

During this entire period of time, Edward’s personal life is just as tumultuous as his professional existence. While studying at Yale, he meets and falls in love with sweet deaf girl Laura (Tammy Blanchard) but when a one-time fling with Clover (Angelina Jolie), the wild-child sister of one of his classmates, results in an unexpected pregnancy, he does the right thing and marries a woman he hardly knows and certainly doesn’t love. (The fact that his OSS orders arrive on the very day of his wedding presumably hastens his decision to join up.) Although he sticks with Clover for the sake of their son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), the secretive nature of his work drives an enormous wedge between the family as Edward becomes more closed off, Clover gets angry and turns to drink while their son has no idea of what is going on between them. Inevitably, Edward’s personal and professional lives clash in a wholly unexpected manner that forces him to choose which of the two is of more importance to him.

With a story of this nature, filmmakers can do one of two things–they can either use an immersive approach that allows them to throw in everything but the kitchen sink and play up the murkiness of the world inhabited by Edward or they can boil it down to one key story point and explore it in minute detail. In “The Good Shepherd,” De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth try to utilize both approaches and while this is certainly an ambitious way to go about it, the results feel rushed (even with a running time bordering on three hours) and confusing as we abruptly bounce from one complex situation filled with shadowy characters with clouded motivations to another without ever spending enough time with one of them to get a grip on the proceedings. (I have seen the film twice now and I still remain slightly confused as to whom some of the people are and what they are doing.) This makes for some occasionally clunky moments–such as the clumsy reinsertion of Edward’s long-lost deaf love–and one inexplicably awful scene in which Roth decides to foreshadow the paranoia and corruption that will eventually ruin the ideals of the CIA by having the De Niro character, while trying to convince Edward to join up, baldly stating that the organization will grow paranoid and corrupt as it becomes more powerful. When the jumping-around finally ceases during the last hour, when the framing Bay of Pigs investigation takes center stage, it seems as if it might finally come together but De Niro and Roth make the mistake of having this section depend almost entirely on the complexities of Edward’s relationship with the person who has proven to be the least interesting and most ill-defined character in the screenplay.

Another problem with the film is that it is frankly too grim and dour for its own good. Clearly, De Niro is trying to demystify the CIA by making their exploits seem less like exciting derring-do and more like endless hours of boredom and confusion punctuated by brief moments of terrible violence and the constant fear of betrayal. That is a perfectly logical approach to the material–more John Le Carre than James Bond–but it doesn’t quite work because De Niro drains the life out of virtually every aspect of the film. I don’t know whether he was afraid to offer up any conventional thrills or if he didn’t feel that he had enough directorial experience to attempt to pull off something along those lines but you keep wishing in vain that some of the visual flamboyance of a Coppola or De Palma could have rubbed off on him. Alas, De Niro’s central character is just as straight-laced and unemotive in front of the camera as he is behind it. You keep waiting for Edward to demonstrate some kind of enthusiasm or excitement regarding the dangerous work he is doing but with the sole exception of a brief appearance in drag during a college stage performance, I don’t think that Matt Damon even cracks a genuine smile once during the proceedings–even when Angelina Jolie is straddling him in the middle of the woods and practically raping him, the expression on his face is less like a man getting his rocks off and more like a man passing a stone or two.

Where De Niro does succeed here is in his work with the members of his large cast–a not-uncommon occurrence for actors-turned-directors. Although hamstrung by a character conception that places himself at a chilly remove from everyone on the screen as well as in the audience (not to mention the fact that he never really seems to age as the story progresses), Matt Damon does some pretty amazing things in his efforts to transform this cold fish into a real person despite his straightforward determination to do whatever he is told regardless of the personal cost. While Damon is on-screen for virtually every scene, De Niro surrounds him with a gallery of memorable supporting turns from the likes of John Turturro (brilliant as Edward’s loyal assistant), William Hurt (as a sleazy-but-genteel superior officer in the organization), Billy Crudup (as a British counterpart with a few secrets of his own) and Joe Pesci (whose single scene as a mobster being lured by Edward into a plot on Fidel Castro’s life serves as a telling reminder of what a strong actor he can be). The only performer who doesn’t quite come off here, unfortunately, is Angelina Jolie in the nothing role of Edward’s long-suffering wife. She isn’t bad by any means and she brings a lot of fire to the proceedings early on but it soon becomes evident that Clover is a less-than-secondary character and it is strange to see someone as singular as Jolie playing the weeping wife who doesn’t understand her husband.

Fabulous and frustrating in equal measure, “The Good Shepherd” is a film that has everything going for it except for a real focus regarding the story that it wants to tell. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in most cases but in this case, the subject matter is hazy enough on its own that it needs all the focus that it can get. At a slimmer-and-trimmer two hours, it might have been a taut true-life political thriller along the lines of “Syriana” and at four hours, it might have been the all-encompassing epic that it hints at being here and there. At three hours, however, it has too many dead spots and rushed moments that prevent it from truly taking off in the end. However, it is smart and ambitious and filled with good performances throughout and for those efforts alone, I am comfortable in recommending it, if with a lot of reservations, to anyone in the mood for an intelligent and decidedly adult night at the movies.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15302&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/22/06 00:40:32
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User Comments

9/21/17 morris campbell boring 1 stars
1/07/09 Shaun Wallner Interesting Movie! 4 stars
7/24/08 mr.mike Good, save for the America hater pleasing interrogation scene. 4 stars
4/28/08 mb Interesting 3 stars
3/01/08 Dave This film needs a major makeover...don't bother to see it. 2 stars
11/26/07 Heywood Jablowme booooring. too long, too slow. 2 stars
8/17/07 P aul Benning A great movie - thought provoking and interesting! 5 stars
8/09/07 p wats awesome film best in the casting never seen anything better.. thanks 5 stars
6/25/07 Taylor Fladgate C'mon...move it along, I'm falling asleep here! What a great cast though. 3 stars
6/12/07 R.W. Welch Keyed a shade low; still an intriguing look at Spookville. 4 stars
5/14/07 Tracey Chambers get to the point already before I open a vein 2 stars
5/11/07 Indrid Cold Yeah it's smart, well acted, etc. It's also excruciatingly dreary and boring. 3 stars
4/29/07 Monday Morning Hey De Niro, stick to acting or learn to edit. TV shows do this better in an hour. 3 stars
4/15/07 ad a bit lengthy but in some ways better than the departed 4 stars
4/07/07 fools♫gold As unrate-able as "Limbo" and/or "Undertow" ... Forget my rating: see it. 4 stars
4/06/07 Phil M. Aficionado Peter Sobczynski's review is right on the money. A film worth seeing overall 4 stars
3/07/07 BertRito A complete mess. A film about spies without any intrigue. Watch The Departed again instead. 1 stars
2/28/07 MP Bartley Damon is superb and such ambition from DeNiro is laudable...but I just didn't care about it 3 stars
1/12/07 Koitus Exactly WHY was the J. Pesci needed?!? Too long; questionable underlying plot, too. 3 stars
1/01/07 Zaw Complicated, some parts drags on too long. Just get the damn point across! 2 stars
1/01/07 Jonathan Dolnier Overrated and convoluted but not a bad movie. 3 stars
1/01/07 Ken S I have seen it 3 times. A superb movie. Not a beer and pretzels film. Highly intellectual. 5 stars
12/31/06 Myra C Good acting, plot confusing at times. 4 stars
12/27/06 Dylan Stewart Kubrik on ludes. Terrible movie. 1 stars
12/27/06 Agent Sands De Niro is possibly one of the finest directors of the past half century. 5 stars
12/24/06 Sig Alman Good See the Movie 4 stars
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  22-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 03-Apr-2007



Directed by
  Robert De Niro

Written by
  Eric Roth

  Matt Damon
  Angelina Jolie
  William Hurt
  John Turturro
  Robert De Niro
  Alec Baldwin

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