Friday, June 29, 2007

The Good Shepherd

A friend finds Edward Wilson on a beach and informs him that he has impregnated his sister - the result of a dalliance by the campfire. "I hope you will do" he informs Wilson "what is expected of you".

In The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro's dense thriller about the machinations of the CIA, Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson - a man who lets events and people bigger than his life carry him forward. And he deals with each fork in the road in a way expected of him. (Once you recognize this, you realize what a terrific movie poster this European version shown above is)

There are two narratives in the movie. A covert operation in Cuba to finally put the newly rampant Fidel Castro in his place ends in disaster. A leak is suspected. A grainy tape showing a white man with a black woman in a hotel room shows up at Wilson's doorstep. Suspicion is flying everywhere. Its 1961.

As Wilson hunts down his suspect via the tape, we see his life unfold in serial flashbacks - along with the birth of the CIA, first as an essential service during the second World War and then as a more permanent installation, providing oversight of the FBI.

In both narratives, nothing is quite what it seems. Suspicion hangs heavy in the air. Betrayal is at hand everywhere. Trust is hard to give and receive.

As a director DeNiro pays painstaking attention to detail. His scenes are gorgeously framed and executed with precision. And he has a strong, layered script to work with. The only problem with it is that a number of dialogues are written metaphorically to convey the myraid subtexts of the film. This makes the entire production seem somewhat heavy handed and staged.

At 2 hours and 48 minutes, The Good Shepherd is a long movie. Yet its a fascinating one, and DeNiro doesn't make it easy - constantly challenging his audience to work hard to keep up with him.

Damon, miscast as he is, strives bravely. As Wilson, he is a maddeningly deliberate, quiet and distant person - but the same qualities that make him a terrible friend, lover, husband and father serve him well in CIA counterintelligence. Michael Gambon, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin, DeNiro himself and William Hurt all turn in solid performances. But the best turns come from Angelina Jolie and Oleg Stefan.

Jolie can deliver a line and change its complexion entirely with a singular look. She uses this ability to give her subdued housewife a sharp edge that plays nicely against Damon's cool exterior. Stefan takes some bold chances in key scenes and delivers the most organic performance in the movie.

I enjoyed The Good Shepherd although - despite enjoying most of his movies - I'm no closer to thinking Matt Damon is as good an actor as most people claim him to be. I think he picks strong movies - by design or by accident - and does what is expected of him. He's a decent actor but a much smarter star.


Anonymous said...

Nice review. I loved this movie but in a heavy hearted kind of way. You are right that the psychological issues of trust as they color individual stories and world history are dealt with deftly.

Unknown said...

Thanks Mind Rush. Heavy hearted? You should watch "Pursuit of Happyness" which I should review before I forget. *Thats* heavy hearted!

Anonymous said...

'Pursuit of Happyness'-It was a little scary to see someone go thru all of those hardships to raise a kid and get a decent living.I always liked Will Smith in a funky way until I saw this movie.His performance in the climax left us teary eyed.

As for Matt Damon,I never found his acting skills extra ordinary.

Unknown said...

I agree - Damon isn't a versatile actor although he is a smart one. So there will be roles that he'll own and others that he'll struggle in. The Bourne movies I think he does rather well.