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Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Good Shepard (2006)



There's a lot to like in Robert DeNiro's ambitious sophomore directorial effort.

The film features solid acting, strong, confident direction, and impressive production design.

But in the end, the story in The Good Shepard, perhaps feels too distant, and too cold for an audience to fully embrace.

What we are left with is a piece of impressive looking art, but unfortunately nothing emotionally involving or moving to make it remarkable.

The film attempts to tell the story of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of Edward Wilson. Who according to IMDB is probably based on the life of James Jesus Angleton, the head of counterintelligence at the C.I.A.

The film traces his journey from his humble beginnings as a poetry student at Yale, through his initiation into the Skull and Bones secret society. Which then puts him on the path towards foreign intelligence gathering during World War II.

The story then shifts to the rise of the Agency during the cold war, and all the way through the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

If that's not enough, in between all that, the film also attempts to show the strain, and devastating effects that this lifestyle has on Edward's personal, and family life.

Ambitious.

It's a lot on DeNiro's plate, and he almost pulls it off.

Almost.

But it's just too much.

Even for a 2 and a half hour movie.

Any one of the multiple issues, and events tackled in the film can be a whole movie in itself.

The story to me feels like it wants to be a twelve episode H.B.O. television series.

It's just too much, too quickly,for me the film ends up feeling like a cliff notes history lesson.

But at times Eric Roth's script really hits the right notes, and DeNiro's direction almost pulls it all off. He directs with a confidence, and artistry which is admirable.

Specifically.....the spy stuff is really cool.

The code names, the secrecy, the training, the intelligence gathering, the back door deals, and the torture methods employed by the agency, that's all cool to watch.

What's great about the film is that DeNiro doesn't bother telling the movie in a conventional manner. He uses flashbacks, a huge cast of characters, and time jumps throughout the film to assemble parts of Edward's life much like a fascinating jigsaw puzzle.

What's also interesting is that there doesn't seem to be a political agenda for the film. Which is unusual considering the material.

DeNiro seems content with just telling a story.

Actually there seems to be no conventional antagonist in the film. Just situations that characters respond to differently, sometimes in negative or what some would consider evil ways.

Perhaps the strongest political statement in the film is how ridiculous the Skull and Bones society is. It's obvious that the filmmakers have a disdain for the initiation rituals and unusual camaraderie of the group. Several jokes by Angelina Jolie's character really drive that point in.

But overall, the film makes no judgements.

I guess one can look at that as a negative for the film. It's not a text book conventional well-made film. But I found it refreshing that he treated the audience in this manner.

It's mature and demanding material that is treated with thought, and consideration rather than conventions.

In a way, this way of storytelling justifies how a simple person can get swept up and caught in this sort of living.

My problems with the film arise with the examination of Edward's family life.

If one is looking for a marker, for me the film takes a down turn with the arrival of Angelina Jolie's character.

Not that she's bad in the film.

She's actually pretty good. But for me the character's storyline is not really effective.

To begin with, the character of Edward is cold, and distant.

He's not affable, or even very sympathetic, and the audience seems to accept him that way.

But when the characters of Edward's wife, and family are thrown into the story. We are expected to sympathize with his struggles, and the plight of the family.

It just doesn't happen.

The truth is it's hard to sympathize with someone who chooses this life path. I mean what do they think they are signing up for when they choose this profession? Fun and parties?

The title of the film in itself implies that the lifestyle of a C.I.A. agent is one of self sacrifice.

So it feels forced and melodramatic to the story to try, and build sympathy for the characters in this way.

It almost feels like Eric Roth and DeNiro were well aware that the story is not emotionally involving. So they attempted to compensate by showing us Edward's family life.

To try and reel us in.

It's obvious that the story needed an emotional hook. But for me, I would've liked to see them try, and find a different way.

A family neglected, and destroyed by a man's extraordinary profession is not exactly original stuff.

It's material that we've seen before, and done better in movies like Donnie Brasco, the Godfather, Goodfellas, and countless other films.

As far as performances, everyone involved is on their "A" game.

Damon is effective in a restrained performance. William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, and Michael Gambon turn in their usual complex and multi-dimensional performances.

But for my money the most memorable character, and performance is John Turturro's Ray Brocco who is Damon's hard nosed and loyal assistant. He's strong willed, effective and willing to do the dirty work in order to help Damon's character achieve his goals.

It seems in order to become a successful and powerful person, there is always a pit bull like this in one's corner to do the dirty work.

It's a wonderful character, one could almost do a whole movie just on this character.

But a lot of the movie feels that way. It's a fascinating and intriguing world we're watching in the film.

I just wish that they could have found that one emotional hook to tie it all together.




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