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Laconic and self-contained, Edward Wilson heads CIA covert operations during the Bay of Pigs. The agency suspects that Castro was tipped, so Wilson looks for the leak. As he investigates, he recalls, in a series of flashbacks, his father's death, student days at Yale (poetry; Skull and Bones), recruitment into the fledgling OSS, truncated affairs, a shotgun marriage, cutting his teeth on spy craft in London, distance from his son, the emergence of the Cold War, and relationships with agency, British, and Soviet counterparts. We watch his idealism give way to something else: disclosing the nature of that something else is at the heart of the film's narration as he closes in on the leak. Written by
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It isn't about dedication and loyalty, it's about belief in what we do.
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"The mental facility to detect conspiracies and betrayal are the same qualities most likely to corrode natural judgment." Almost every year, there is one great film that slips under my radar. I usually wait for it to hit DVD because it keeps getting passed over for other films I'd rather watch. However, when I finally get around to seeing it, I wonder to myself how I ever let it pass me by.
In 2006, that film is Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd". Here is a cinematic gem that hits all the right notes. It is a study in detail. It is a master-class in mood and tone and style. This movie is a fascinating character study and a riveting story of trust, loyalty and betrayal -- both personally and politically.
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is a gifted young man whose keen intellect and sharp observational skills soon catch the attentions of some important people. While attending Yale University, Edward is recruited into the uber-secretive college society known as the Skull and Bones. During the initiation ritual, he is asked to recount a secret that he has never before revealed -- a pledge of trust and brotherhood. He describes his father's suicide as a result of being a disgraced naval officer.
The FBI becomes aware of Edward's abilities. His encounter with a poetry professor only serves to expedite his venture into the world of espionage.
Edward's ties to that secretive community cost him his first love, Laura, a beautiful young deaf girl with a heart of gold and a pure spirit. Instead, a relationship seems forced upon him with Clover (Angelina Jolie), sister to one of his fraternity colleagues. An unplanned pregnancy rushes along the marriage plans. It becomes a loveless relationship between strangers.
The film follows Edward's life, shifting between the 1940's and the 1960's, counterbalancing the eager early loyalty with the paranoid, lonely and resentful man he becomes later in life. "The Good Shepherd" is a finite analysis of a man who knows what the important things in life are (family, love, friendship, parenting), but substitutes them for patriotism and duty -- perhaps as a way of restoring his father's honor.
What De Niro does so well is to patiently, rather microscopically, dissect Edward's life in the world of intelligence. Every detail of this man's soul is laid bare for us to see. It allows the viewer to respect and pity him at the same time. It is probably the greatest cinematic exploration of espionage ever made. We are privy to this character's very core.
Consider the multiple virtuoso sequences in which the CIA lab technicians systematically analyze a fuzzy black & white photograph in conjunction with a low grade audio tape. It is a fascinating study in detail that serves as a microcosm to the entire movie. De Niro's legendary attention to the details of his portrayed characters has quite obviously transferred to his directing. Everything of value in "The Good Shepherd" lays in the subtle moments... the momentary glances... the uncomfortable silences... the verbal hints and clues.
Also note the fabulous exchange in a covert London counter-intelligence office between Matt Damon and John Turturro. It is a fantastic exercise in screen writing, rapid rhythmic delivery and understated, yet mesmerizing, acting. It was wonderful to watch the "Rounders" duo reunite and square off with some great dialogue once again.
This may be De Niro's epic creation, but in terms of acting, this is Matt Damon's film. What he achieves here is nothing short of... well, nothing short of De Niro at his very best. Damon picks the bones of his character clean. It is a performance that establishes him as one of the greats of a generation. None of his contemporary peers can carry the face of solemnity and gravitas quite as powerfully as he. This role is Damon's "Raging Bull"... albeit a quiet rage. This is the best performance of 2006... from either sex.
There are many fine supporting roles on display. Most noteworthy are the turns by Alec Baldwin as the all-knowing FBI agent, Tammy Blanchard as Edward's regrettably lost first love, and Michael Gambon as the wise professor who has been in the game too long. It was also a welcome sight to see Joe Pesci in a feature film for the first time in a long while. The entire cast is first rate -- an obvious sign that De Niro knows how to cast a film with actors as precise as he.
This film truly captures how lonely it must be to work in the intelligence community, especially at that time. Half way through the film, Edward receives the news that his first son has been born. The resulting phone call to his wife is interrupted by air-raid sirens and horrible static. His wife asks if he is busy saving the world. He replies, "Sometimes. What color are his eyes?" When the line is cut off before she answers, we empathize with Edward's decision to sacrifice his own happiness for the good of his ungrateful government.
When Edward unexpectedly runs into Laura, some years after their college romance, she confesses that she often wonders what life would have been like had they stayed together. It is a poignant scene, filled with regrets of what might have been.
I watched two other films in the past week that were within touching distance of greatness. "The Painted Veil" and "Goya's Ghosts" were both in need of a little more patience -- maybe they were afraid to go much beyond the two hour mark for fear of being commercially unviable. At two hours and forty-five minutes, "The Good Shepherd" goes the extra mile, resulting in a complete filmgoing experience. Quite frankly, it is an unassailable masterpiece.
TC Candler IndependentCritics.com.
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