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After enduring trailer after trailer with endless stings of explosions,
ridiculous CG-assisted stunts and mindless action, I felt very rewarded
with an intelligent and intriguing film that defies the status quo of
bigger and louder is better.
The Good Sheperd doesn't insult your intelligence, it stimulates it, sometimes confuses it, and forces you to look several layers beneath the surface. It feels like a throwback to another era of films when the complexity of a character was of greater importance than spectacle.
De Niro took a page from his producer's best work, Francis Ford Coppola, emulating films like The Godfather, The Conversation and Apacalypse Now. The drama rises not from the usual blatant conventional devices but rather by raising questions because of what we're not told and not shown. It requires a great deal of courage to use this style as films have gravitated more and more toward assuming the average moviegoer is of substandard intelligence. The scope of the film is enormous, yet the point of view is narrowly focused to be seen through the eyes of one man. There are a dozen of subplots, but all are carefully tied into the through-line of the story to match the main character's progression.
The film may require some understanding of American history from WWII through the Kennedy administration. It starts with the later years of the story, The Bay of Pigs debacle, and traces the steps that lead to it, one of the more embarrassing moments in the history of U.S. foreign policy. I found it a bit annoying that Matt Damon's character, Edward Wilson, barely seemed to age in the film while others around him did (the best way to determine his age is whether he's wearing wire-rimmed or horn-rimmed glasses), but it didn't ruin the film for me.
Overall though, definitely one of the best films of 2006. A rare film that makes you want to think and understand, rather than forget.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A gray winter day was a fitting time to see one of the first public
screenings of a film called "The Good Shepherd," whose chilly hero
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, in a role modeled in part on CIA founder,
James Jesus Angleton) is not so much all things to all men as nobody to
anybody. A composite figure in a portrait of the birth, rise, and moral
shriveling of the American CIA, Matt Damon's disturbingly shut-down
Wilson would be one of recent film's most tragic figures if he were not
such a hollow, unappealing man. Directing a long-contemplated project
using a screenplay by Eric Roth (who penned "Munich"), Robert De Niro
has forged a "Godfather" of Yankee spy-craft, a heavy, solemn epic
about betrayal and loyalty in the world of espionage and
counter-espionage dominated not by Italians as in the original
"Godfather," though Coppola produced, De Niro directed, and Joe Pesci
has one of the liveliest on screen moments, but by uptight, stony,
Indeed as seen here the world of American intelligence is a privileged and exclusive and deeply conflicted one where Irish, blacks, and Italians need not apply; fathers are absent; privilege grows out of Skull and Bones at Yale, wives are betrayed; sons labor desperately to measure up, and the leading practitioners are ridden with guilt and suspicion. There is no one to trust and nothing to believe in not family or tradition, or even music only America, which Edward Wilson says belongs to his class. All others are just visiting.
Into this demoralizing story, damning in its picture of the world of white privilege and of intelligence itself but nonetheless intricately involving and at times genuinely disturbing, are woven some of the major incidents and personalities of the period from from before the Second World War after which OSS morphed into CIA till after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion under JFK, from hot war to cold war. You have Philbys and fake Russian turncoats, CIA execs siphoning off money to Switzerland in guise of chocolate boxes, and through it all you have a Cuba mole investigation that smashes Wilson's own family.
Wilson's true penchant was for a deaf girl named Laura (an excellent Tammy Blanchard); and with her is the only time Damon seems to develop human warmth. He is forced to marry the more elevated Margaret Russell (an uncomfortable Angelina Jolie) sister of one of his Skull and Bones colleagues who remains Wilson's Old Boy link to privilege ever after. Traumatic embarrassment, revelation of closest held secrets, and doubt of loyalty are seen as inborn elements of the espionage world. The very qualities that make a good spy, as seen here, also make a man untrustworthy.
Do spies ever have fun? Not much, as seen from the angle of Damon's character. Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), a randy gay pseudo-intellectual who turns and turns again, is naughty, but he pays for it. Another Brit, Arch Cummings, played gamely by Billy Crudup, similarly wears a smile that turns to dust. A good professional of the lower ranks like Staff Sergeant Brocco (John Turturro), Wilson's OSS assistant in England, is a stern sadist whose use of LSD for an interrogation backfires fatally. Nasty sabotages are devised to spoil the left's Latin American agricultural schemes. Big foul-ups like the Bay of Pigs invasion lead to vicious internal purges. And through it all Wilson's son cringes and his wife pines; the marriage had dried up after his six-year absence during WWII; and his imploded selfhood is symbolized by his only hobby, building ships inside bottles. As the film bluntly puts it, the spy-master must choose either family or country; he can't have both. And is it all worth it? The Russian on LSD declares his country's armed might a myth perpetuated by America to justify its ongoing pursuit of world dominance. Is intelligence a needed quantity, or are its organizations self-perpetuating shams? The movie never gives a positive answer. This may be the cruelest picture of the spy game ever put on film.
Many fine actors play small unappealing roles as spy-masters or cold operatives. These include De Niro himself, Alec Baldwin, and William Hurt, all creditable, but unlikely to get Oscar nods for their tightly held back performances. Damon can be accused of the same limitation, though if his Wilson bothers you, he's done his job better than you may think. And young Eddie Redmayne, as Wilson's grown son, has one of the most gut-wrenching roles in a story notable for its devastating picture of the effects of career on family life.
Despite its epic scale and length (it's 160 minutes long), "The Good Shepherd" is more troubling than flashy, more thought-provoking than moving. Ultimately it may be somewhat an artistic failure. The criticism that it is either too long or too short, that it needed to be pared down or expanded to a mini-series, has some merit. But nonetheless as a work that considers big issues and asks big questions, it's one of the more serious and intellectually stimulating mainstream American films of the year.
The Good Shepherd 3.5/4 4/5
The Good Shepherd is an incredibly complex work and one of the finest films of a quality ripe 2006. Oscar winner Eric Roth continues his brilliant work with this original screenplay, named one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood in the late 90's. A film about one of the CIA's founding officers isn't a dream project commercially for a studio but thankfully, the quality of the script was too great to ignore.
Shepherd follows the life of Edward Wilson (Damon) through his college years at Yale to his ascension as one of the CIA's founding officers and trusted veterans. His extraordinary dedication to his work comes with an unbearable price as he must sacrifice his family to protect his country. At one point in the film, Wilson faces an enormous choice- does he abandon his ideals for what he believes is right? Would this abandonment render his life, almost solely devoted to his country, meaningless? This, as well as a depiction of the result of Wilson's decision, are just two of the moments of brilliance in The Good Shepherd.
Wilson inhabits a world of betrayal and secrecies only enhancing the irony of the biblical quote inscribed on the CIA's wall- "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free". While we are given a glimpse into the life of a younger, more vital Wilson, the world he occupies creates the characteristically stolid, humorless man we come to know.
With its vast emotional core, the film seemingly effortlessly navigates one of the most volatile periods in the history of American intelligence while remaining character based. At 165 minutes, it is overlong but remains engaging for the vast majority of its running time. Had a few relatively insignificant scenes been cut, Shepherd could have retained the thrilling and energetic pace it often possesses. However, the length is justifiable as the scope of the film is incredibly large and very few scenes can be deemed unnecessary or dull.
Robert DeNiro's direction far exceeds that in his debut, 1993's "A Bronx Tale". Normally portrayed as a brute, here, DeNiro assuredly handles every moment with an innate tenderness we rarely see in his work. He appropriately treats Shepherd with a precise attention to detail often attributed to some of the greatest directors of our time.
A silently haunting Matt Damon carries the film on his shoulders. Edward Wilson is completely introverted and while Damon internalizes his thoughts, some of the films greatest moments are when emotion unknowingly pours out of Wilson through a mere flicker in his eyes. Angelina Jolie and Michael Gambon deliver very strong turns amidst a one of a kind cast topped off by the return of Joe Pesci, whose last acting stint was 1998's "Lethal Weapon 4".
The Good Shepherd is a film that demands to be seen. It is surprisingly apolitical as Wilson's life and its disintegration are the true story of this epic. While some call it "unsentimental", exactly the opposite is true. It is a testament to Roth's script that a film with such an introverted protagonist provides such a visceral, affecting experience. Shepherd is an intelligent, poignant look at the cost of blind dedication and constant secrecy. The effect this has on Wilson's life is irrevocable as we are taken on a remarkable cinematic journey, one that should be remembered as one of 06's greatest.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I wanted to like it, I really did. I bought my ticket for The Good
Shepard solely based on a few trailers I saw in the fall....Damon,
DeNiro, Pesci, Jolie...spies, the CIA, THE COLD WAR!!!!...this had to
be good, or so I thought. Unfortunately, in one of the worst editing
jobs I've ever seen, DeNiro lets this movie meander into a dismal abyss
where the viewer begins to foretell the scenes and even the conclusion
well before they happen.
First off, I must clear up a clear advertising ploy performed by the production house. This is not a movie about the birth of the CIA, its a biopic about a fictional character named Edward Wilson (Damon), loosely based on the life of the real CIA founder James Jesus Angleton. The trailers which make you excited to see Damon, Pesci, DeNiro, and Jolie share the screen are a fraud. Pesci has about a 3-minute cameo as a mob boss, and DeNiro stumbles (figuratively and literally) through 3 or 4 scenes as an Army general who recruits Damon and then guides him as the growth of counter intelligence and the Cold War occur simultaneously. Jolie plays second fiddle to Damon the entire movie. She holds her own at times, but the script more or less requires her to crawl into the shell of a marriage and life that her husband Damon makes for her. Its not a poor acting performance, but we are so used to seeing Jolie take over movies, that its almost painful to watch her hide behind Damon.
Onto the film -- Damon is excellent, and he draws fine supporting roles out of John Turturro and Micheal Gambon. The acting is the only saving grace of this movie. Im sure positive reviewers will touch open Damon's ability to hold the screen for 3 hours, and I concur he gives a strong performance as a man who is perhaps misunderstood, perhaps sheltered within his own moral-ism, but ultimately --boring. The life he partially chooses and is partially forced to chose is one of a supposed "higher purpose" and patriotism. The birth of the CIA is manifested by Wilson's ability to choose this patriotic life, and remain true to it in the face of serious conflicting decisions related to his friends, family, and overall morality. Some may call it stoicism, but Damon's portrayal of Wilson, which is intentionally designed to be wooden and singularly devoted to his career, sinks this movie. Its not that its not believable, its that its just not interesting. Wilson's personality is so obvious that the plot never takes on any intrigue because Wilson never waivers from his objectives and thus the plot lines become very predictable.
The first 45 minutes take you through the Yale years, the impregnation of Jolie, and Damon's stint as an intelligence officer in Britain during WWII. So far so good, but already you can see the developing themes: Damon & Jolie = the fraud of a marriage; Damon and Gambon (who serves as a his mentor) = internal betrayal, and the choice between protecting those close to you and serving the interests of the United States government.
The scenes that dominate the middle of this movie are not fluid and failed to perk my interest in the plot. People are promoted, but the viewer does not know why, people move to the Congo, but the viewer does not know why, people become turncoats, but no reason is given for their betrayals, instead you accept them as fact, hope for it all to tie in, and are disappointed when answers either fail to emerge or are predictable when they do.
In the end, the movie is disconnected. There is nothing left to hang your hat on. No great espionage scenes, no cinematic contributions to the spy genre as one may have thought, and very little if any historically significant commentary on what we all know is a time period and subject matter that lends itself to compelling theater.
Within the development of the CIA you see the fact that no one trusts anyone, but you only see brief snippets of true betrayal, or worse yet, the betrayals you do see can be forecast 1 hour before they happen. DeNiro has a bad habit of introducing an obvious problem into the plot, covering the problem up with 45 minutes of filler, and then letting it resurface, -- so you say to yourself, I forgot about that, but I saw it coming. Its no way to make a successful movie.
So with the CIA development and spy stories lacking in all respects, the movie turns back to the family and beats this plot line down over and over again until you just want Jolie to throw herself out of a window, much like some other people in the film and save both herself and the viewers the pain of watching the family continually devolve. In the end some choices must be made, but any half-minded viewer knows what will happen long before it does. Sure you can argue that there are a few twists, but after almost three hours, I was to numbed by sheer boredom to give much credit to any final hour plot twists. This is a boring movie, directed poorly, and acted wonderfully. Save it for a night with the girlfriend or wife when you want to fall asleep in each other's arms at home cause if anything it will serve as a good sleeping agent.
The good shepherd is an excellent film. The reason this film was dubbed the "Godfather of spy movies" is because ala the "Godfather" De Niro uses real life situations involving the CIA and blends them together creating a story around the lead character played by Matt Damon. In addition,several great performances in character parts complement Damon's performance, notably Michael Gambon and John Turturro were both superb. You shouldn't view this film expecting to be blown out of your seats, it is deep, and requires strict attention to detail. My wife and I viewed this film in a packed movie house and we were very certain that half the people in the audience didn't understand or appreciate what they had just seen. I am not saying you need to be of great intellect to enjoy this film, but one of the things De Niro manages to do is bring back a thinking man's drama that is often not seen in today's attention deficit, shoot them up, bang bang movies. This film makes it obvious that Directors Bertolucci and Leone have left a huge impression on De Niro and the result is a movie that both would be proud of.
If you're out to see a movie soon, this is one that should be on the
top of your list. An all-star cast and an intriguing story isn't all
that this movie has. It has some great performances from both Matt
Damon and Angelina Jolie that are likely to get some award nominations.
I won't give any spoilers, I'll just give my background and overall opinion. When I saw the commercials, I thought it seemed interesting, but not interesting enough to get me out of my seat right now to go see it. It just didn't seem to have anything totally different than other movies, other than the combination of actors. Since I just got to see it anyway, I realized that it's one of those movies that ends up being better than you think it would be.
Matt Damon, as always, plays a good serious guy who's smart, savvy, and dedicated to his job. It kind of reminded me of his characters in The Departed and the Bourne Identity, except it's in a different situation and setting. His performance in this role was very fitting and believable.
Angelina Jolie surprisingly worked well with this role. In the commercials I thought she was a little too wild compared to Matt Damon's calm character, but she really brought out the emotion of a wife who felt shut out and didn't have a complete relationship with and understanding of her husband.
Robert DeNiro of course was great. It was a nicely added touch to an already good movie.
While I wouldn't say it's as factual as the History Channel, I think the subject of the movie does put good insight on the history of the CIA. I think people who are into government/politics and history would like the storyline. It does focus quite a bit on his family relationship and how it is affected by his job in the CIA, and I'm sure any couple who has been in a similar situation would understand it.
Overall, the movie was better than I thought and I would recommend it to movie-goers, especially those who like suspense and any of the main characters.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can't vouch for how much truth can be found in "The Good Shepherd."
After all, how much can you really know about an organization that
deals in lies? But I do know that Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the
perfect, duty-bound man of privilege -- born in the north east, bred in
the Ivy League, lured into a secret society of cocky heirs to American
industry, and made into a man feared by others only because he,
himself, feared his superiors.
And even though Edward never truly existed, he managed to turn a cloak-and-dagger fraternity into a megalomaniacal arm of the government. And while the CIA was never intended to become the "heart and soul" of America, Edward helps to make it just that... while losing his own soul in the process. But the greatest irony of them all, is that Edward never wanted any of it. Like the heir to a dynasty, Edward was chosen from among the young elite, molded and coerced his entire life, as if the great machinary of America's powerful few knew he would be the perfect cog. And he was.
This is what "The Good Shepherd" does best. It creates an intriguing, tragic story worth telling, with no small help from the legacy of "The Godfather" series. Director Rober DeNiro channels Francs Ford Coppolla right down to the operatic, dual-story ending. The grave tone and slow escalation of this thriller may seem like a slow burn, but it's ultimately worth the fire, even if it does leave you craving a bit of Hitchcockian suspense (a couple of punch-ups from the oft-maligned Brian DePalma couldn't have hurt). But the subtle, dead-on acting from Damon will ground you. In the end, Edward is confronted by the responsibilities of duty and loyalty to family. And it's wonderful to see Damon take two "Godfather"'s worth of psychological burden and prove that he has the talent and strength to shoulder it.
On the other hand, the film suffers from a few bouts of contrived and melodramatic dialogue (mostly heaped upon the film's two, underwritten, female leads and on DeNiro's mugging cameo). And it's easy to get lost in the second act, during several mysteries about Russian spies and the Bay of Pigs invasion. With some sharper editing, the story could have been tighter and more focused early on. The more we drift away from Damon's central character, the more the story wanders. As it is, much of the story's intensity falls on the film's final act. But what an act it is.
The final twenty minutes comprise "The Good Shepherd"'s emotional and thematic backbone. For some audience members, it might come a little too late... after two hours of serpentine plotting, deliberate pacing and extensive backstory. But, for patient viewers, the slow burn will be worth it.
Before I go on to praise the good points of THE GOOD SHEPHERD, I should
mention at the start that the film badly needed some judicious editing.
There are many scenes that go on for too long a time and are badly in
need of some artful editing to get the point across just as well.
Aside from length, everything else about the film is on the plus side--the handsome cinematography, the vast amount of settings, the background score that adds to the drama, and the performances of the entire cast which are uniformly good. I'm not a great admirer of ANGELINA JOLIE as an actress, but here I think she demonstrated skill at suggesting the loneliness, frustrations and jealousies of a woman whose life has to remain outside the boundaries of her husband's job with the CIA. Through a series of detailed vignettes, the murky world of an agent's life of deception within the government is sharply observed.
More of a character study of Edward Wilson (played in stolid, very serious fashion by MATT DAMON) than a straightforward spy yarn, it manages to hold the interest even though it uses the flashback method of storytelling that is apt to confuse a viewer if it isn't done well. But here again, there is a flaw--it covers a span of twenty or more years but the aging of the central character is never quite convincing enough. Damon never looks that much older than his grown son--whereas a few gray hairs might have helped considerably. As his grown son, EDDIE REDMAYNE does reasonably well as the man seeking his father's approval.
As for the supporting players in this story about one man's experiences in the newly developing CIA, JOHN TURTURRO does an outstanding job as a tough inquisitor and MICHAEL GAMBON is outstanding as a security risk with homosexual tendencies. ALEC BALDWIN has little to do but is intense enough as one of the agency's top men and others in the cast maintain credibility all the way through.
The story itself is rather problematic in that nothing is what it seems and not all the information is readily given to the viewer in a way that makes sense. This is partly the fault of the script and partly the fault of director Robert De Niro who also assumes a small role effectively.
But still, despite the handicap of being too long (and a bit too involved at certain points), it makes for fascinating viewing and is the kind of film you dare not divert your attention from for a moment. If you do, you are liable to miss an essential plot point.
Summing up: Highly recommended for anyone with a keen interest in espionage dramas.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I went in this one really wanting to like it. What an incredible
concept! But the film just didn't do a thing for me.
Firstly, I find it hard to suspend my disbelief to buy Matt Damon as a 20 year-old college junior. He was just plain old 34 year-old Matt. THEN six years later, he has a son and talks to him on overseas long distance and Matt looks exactly the same except he has changed his eyeglass frames...he is supposed 26 yet still looks 34. THEN, fifteen years later, Matt has changed his eyeglass frames again but now his son is 20 years-old and Matt is STILL only 34. When these two are together as father and son, it just kills any other aspect of what the story is attempting to tell us because NO ONE can buy into Matt Damon's son only being 14 years younger than himself.
The least DeNiro could have done was to put a little grey hair at Matt's temples or buy him a different suit of clothes. In a film full of flashbacks covering a 22 year period, it is vital to make your characters age and progress through life.
Oh yeah, I absolutely COULD NOT buy Angelina Jolie as a 20 year-old debutante. And the most frequent comment I heard in the lobby following the film was observations about Matt and Angelina's gay son with the deformed giant upper lip...very distracting and horrible casting on the grown son actor.
But putting the casting aside, the thread that unites the tale into a whole and pulls along to the conclusion of the story is totally nonexistent. Sure, I saw some of the old fabled myths of CIA lore stabbed at rather listlessly like the LSD-25 scene. Actually, the LSD suicide via window jumping was supposedly a CIA agent and not a Soviet operative. And the whole planting of locusts in South America by the CIA in order to foil the Zapatistas politico/economic strategy has pretty much been discredited over the years. But this IS, after all, a fanciful telling of a single person's vantage of the period so I guess it is not that important.
But there were incredibly disjointed scenes that did nothing for the story and barely did anything for character development. For instance, Joe Pesci appearing for several minutes of noncontributing story points just so Matt Damon's character can say, "America, the rest of you are just visiting" was a waste of time and illuminated nothing about Cuba, the Mob or the CIA's relationship with the Mob. Or why is Matt's son in Africa hooking up with black girls? Is Matt's son supposed to be a CIA agent at that point? Is he giving up dirty tricks to the other side? What did he do with the information he overheard in the bath tub? Was he still just a college boy? You really cannot nail down time periods regarding the son because he ages even less than his parents once he becomes an adult.
And a most irritating bit of prop management is it appears that Matt Damon's character wore the same trench coat and hat from 1939 to 1961. I am sure they were of the highest quality but I just don't see these items being worn every single business day for over twenty years and still looking serviceable.
Like I said, I really wanted to enjoy this movie but after three hours of my life sitting there waiting for the big reveal, it just ended. I cannot recommend this one to friends unless they are willing to wait for DVD rental or, better yet, HBO release. Sorry.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Good Shepered" is excellent in so many ways it will frustrate
viewers hungry for intelligent, adult film-making.
Matt Damon gives an unforgettable performance as the very cold American spy Edward Wilson.
Wilson makes Mr. Spock look like Zorba the Greek. Damon faced the same challenge that actors who play corpses face. I think he flashes his Matt Damon grin exactly once in the film's entire two-hour-plus runtime. Damon can simulate sex with Angelina Jolie without a flicker of heat melting one feature of his frozen face. This man may be the solution to Global Warming.
John Turturro crackles as an Italian American who verbally jousts with Yale snob Wilson when they first meet. Joe Pesci is a completely believable Mafia boss in one brief scene and in one brief observation about ethnicity in America. Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Robert De Niro and Michael Gambon are solid gold, as ever.
Billy Crudup is scrupulously refined, and deadly, as a Kim Philby-like traitor. Tammy Blanchard is poignant as a deaf woman who truly loves. Eddy Redmayne is even more poignant as a sheep among wolves; I wanted to rush on screen and rescue him.
Angelina Jolie is a famous celebrity; you see her face on supermarket tabloids a lot. Whenever she appears on screen here as an obedient, frustrated wife, you think to yourself, "But, Angelina would never do that." And that's the problem with her "acting." The production values are sky high. You've got your vintage cars, your recreation of Skull and Bones retreats. You've got big issues: imperialism, espionage, the price of victory, loyalty, betrayal.
What you don't have is story. We care about movies, plays, and novels, and they get us to think about big ideas, because there is a story there, a boat, to glide us over everything else -- the characters, the details, the historical lessons.
Robert De Niro may be an artist, but he isn't, not in this movie, anyway, a story teller. You sense this right away. The first few scenes are a disconnected jumble. You really have to struggle to find a thread to follow.
The movie doesn't give us anyone to like or root for, or any tragedy to mourn. The movie doesn't know the answer to one key question: did Edward start out so cold, and did circumstance exploit his coldness, or did his life as a spy, to which he was recruited by more powerful others, make him cold? Compare this movie to masterpieces like "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Searchers." Like "Shepherd," these films depict disturbed characters acting out their part against huge historical canvases. The key difference: both these films start and end with story, and were made by master storytellers. They don't ask you to *think* about imperialism or racism or destiny until they've seduced you to *care* about, and identify with, Lawrence, or Ethan.
"The Good Shepherd" wants to throw a lot of essay material at you: privilege, power, war -- and it rejects your involvement as callously as the main character himself rejects someone who loves him.
As much as this movie wants to be an intelligent movie, its choice to reject story and character as primary, and cogitation as only, ever the fruit of story, was ultimately, not very intelligent.
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