Sunday, December 31, 2006

"The Good Shepherd," dir. Robert DeNiro (Oklahoma Gazette)

In fictionalizing the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency, “The Good Shepherd” dares comparison to a slew of great espionage flicks from past decades. To me, however, the movie it most aspires to be isn’t about spies at all, “The Godfather.” That isn’t to say that “The Good Shepherd” is a masterpiece, but its epic tale of secrets, deception and divided loyalties bears the sweep and depth of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic.

No wonder, then, that “The Good Shepherd” is co-produced by Coppola and directed by Robert DeNiro, who earned an Oscar for 1974’s “Godfather, Part II” in 1974. Hey, if you’ve got to model yourself after something, it might as well be the best.

The provocateur protagonist of “Good Shepherd,” Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), is the quintessential CIA spook. A buttoned-up Yale man and member of its elite Skull and Bones secret society, he is recruited in 1940 to help build a secret foreign intelligence operation in anticipation of the United States’ entry into World War II. Edward’s laconic, guarded nature makes him ideal for the job. He accepts the government’s offer, especially after he is forced into a shotgun marriage with a society girl (Angelina Jolie) he barely knows.

Edward goes to work, first in London, where he learns the spy trade from a scholarly British agent (Michael Gambon), and later in post-war Berlin. Spanning from the dawn of the Cold War to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Edward’s experiences provide a tableau for “The Good Shepherd’s” sharp and involving history of American espionage. DeNiro captures a pitch-perfect tone, from Robert Richardson’s solemn cinematography to a languorous pace that allows this universe of secrets and lies to percolate with intrigue.

Light and shadow are revealed through small details. A character’s seemingly innocuous comment or action can later take on critical meanings; alert moviegoers are likely to find themselves sizing up character right along with Edward. Despite the film’s lengthy running time (167 minutes), the screenplay by Eric Roth (“Munich”) has precious little flab.

Perhaps DeNiro’s considerable acting chops helped spur great performances. Whatever the reason, “The Good Shepherd” uses its star-studded cast to great effect. Jolie, Gambon, DeNiro and John Turturro are memorable in supporting roles, and Tammy Blanchard is heartbreaking as Edward’s college sweetheart.

But this is Matt Damon’s movie all the way. Quiet but with eyes flashing intelligence, he is devastating as a man who sacrifices a personal life for one without trust or intimacy. In fact, the picture’s success at breathing life into Edward Wilson proves to be a double-edged sword. It is difficult for a story to follow a reserved, emotionally remote protagonist without becoming reserved and emotionally remote in the process.

That’s the thing with ambitious projects: Sometimes you stumble. “The Good Shepherd,” whatever its missteps, has ambition to spare. Epic in scope and provocative in execution, the movie is a compelling examination of Cold War-era espionage. The Cold War is over, but the saga of Edward Wilson feels curiously relevant today, in the wake of faulty CIA intelligence on WMDs and questions about where interrogation ends and torture begins.


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