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Good Shepherd, The Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

If we're to take this movie at its word, the CIA was founded by a bunch of boring WASPs in suits. I'm not going to argue with the WASPs in suits aspect, but why, oh why, must they be so bland? There is so much internal turmoil in The Good Shepherd it's amazing its central character manages to get anything done. There's a lot of story here, as Eric Roth's screenplay follows the birth of the CIA from its origins as the OSS during World War II to the Bay of Pigs debacle, but Robert De Niro's sophomore directorial effort is so subdued that in the end it feels like nothing of significance has happened. The movie obviously wants to say a lot-the conflict of career and family, the question of whether or not the secrecy and deceitful nature of the Central Intelligence Agency has become "the heart and soul" of America, as one character puts it. Roth's screenplay, though, is too concerned with plot, and De Niro is too focused on silent agony. The combination is an unfortunate one-one that underplays the intrigue of the supposed history lesson and overplays a lot of subtext with questionable relevance to the main thrust of the story.

The movie starts off on April 16, 1961-one day before the Bay of Pigs invasion. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) boards a bus on his way to work, just as he does every day. The invasion happens the next day, turns into the debacle history has deemed it to be, and the next day, Wilson's former FBI contact Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) tells him the President is already looking to break down the CIA. Wilson also receives a mysterious photograph and audio tape under his door at night, and the next day, the CIA's technicians are working to decipher the clues. The story cuts between the CIA's cleanup efforts with the help of the evidence presented to Wilson and Wilson's rise in the intelligence community, starting with his induction into the Skull and Bones at Yale in 1939. He starts a serious relationship with a deaf fellow student named Laura (Tammy Blanchard), and after learning from Murach that his poetry teacher Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon) is involved with a Nazi group, he begins his life of spying. Things become complicated when he meets Clover (Angelina Jolie), with whom he betrays Laura, and Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), who wants him to help the cause in Europe.

The espionage in Europe and Wilson learning the finer elements of intelligence from Dr. Fredericks, who turns out to be British intelligence, makes the central character a harder version of himself and starts his slow descent into minor paranoia. There's also details of his past brought to light involving his father (Timothy Hutton), who killed himself after his loyalty to the country was questioned, but these are just background for what turns into the movie's focal point: the clash of Wilson's shaky home life and his career. [PAGEBREAK] Things don't start off too well for Edward and Clover; soon after their shotgun wedding, he's off to Europe. Their son is born while he's in London, and while some think the war in Europe shouldn't have ended till an invasion of Moscow, Wilson begins his mutually suspicious ties to a KGB operative nicknamed "Ulysses" (Oleg Stefan). The scenes between the CIA and KGB men are some of the movie's better ones, as there's an actual feeling of menace underneath their relatively subdued conversations. Again, though, the movie focuses mostly on Edward and his wife, who has gone back to Margaret when he returns home. There's an awkward homecoming, and things go downhill for the two from there.

The actual conflict between Edward and Margaret-and eventually Edward and his son Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne)-is fairly generalized, and some of the scenes play as forced. When the family/career conflict finally comes to a head, forcing Edward to choose between his family and his job (a fact Ulysses blatantly points out, as if it weren't clear enough to begin with), the movie's restrained tone finally gets the best of it. So much happens in the movie's final act, but none of it has an emotional impact. For a study of the cold-blooded nature of the intelligence game, the movie's detached tone works, but it ultimately lessens the impact of Edward's personal dilemma. A scene of Wilson's right-hand man (played by John Turturro) beating a suspect and using LSD as a truth serum certainly have a modern relevance in terms of the use of torture, bringing up questions about Sullivan's warning that the CIA not become the "heart and soul" of America, but the movie's heart is not in its political subtext. As it turns out, the most fascinating scenes in the movie involve the mysteries of the photo and the audio tape, but the implications of final revelation never pay off.

De Niro tells the story with technical precision, and the film does an excellent job evoking its international settings and multi-decade time span. The Good Shepherd is about ten minutes shy of three hours, though, and does it ever feel it. The problem, I suppose, is trying to make a man who bottles up his problems like the tiny ships he builds the least bit interesting.

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