“The Good Shepherd,” Robert DeNiro’s film about the early days of the CIA is the latest in a trend of political films that took root in 2005 with “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and “Munich” and continued on into 2006 with films such as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Bobby” and “Blood Diamond.” If it is merely a passing fad, it is one that is an interesting reflection of the times we live in.
Political thrillers have been a staple of Hollywood for decades, but usually take the form of a popcorn movie. This new crop of films seems more rooted in reality using historical events to mirror the present or taking the stories of the present and giving them a context.
That actors are directing many of these films is in itself a statement of the political environment of the United States. Actors are moving behind the camera because they feel they need to say something about the world today.
The 1970s were perhaps the last time such rash of political films came out. Films like “All the President Men” were an indication of the distrust of the government. Today’s films are in that same vein. They ask viewers to question and hold the government accountable.
Based upon the trailers attached with “The Good Shepherd” it looks like the trend will continue on into 2007, but if this is a review of “The Good Shepherd” why I have begun with a lengthy digression? Because the trend the film is a part of is far more interesting than the film itself.
“The Good Shepherd” is over long, and slower than a snail. A film focused on volatile historical periods like World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis shouldn’t be dull. Sadly, at times it is hard to stay wake.
Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson is the film’s lead character. Wilson is recruited in his 20s from Yale to be an agent for the government. From his perspective we see the early missions of what would later become the CIA.
Damon is surrounded be great actors in roles not much larger than a cameo. DeNiro pops up as well as Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, William Hurt and Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous,” “Big Fish.”) DeNiro even manages to pull Joe Pesci out of an eight-year retirement for a five-minute scene that feels like it belongs in “Goodfellas 2.”
Most of the cast barely registers. It isn’t bad acting it just rarely lingers in the mind. Turturro, at least in one scene, is the exception. He leaves an impression during a tense, shocking interrogation of a potential Russian spy. It is the best scene of the film. Most of the film is waiting for something to happen and never getting a pay off. The interrogation scene is one of the few to deliver an emotional punch.
Angelina Jolie as Wilson’s neglected wife is the only other actor to have a substantial amount of screen time, but she’s given a thankless role. Her character is nothing more than an archetype.
Jolie goes through the motions of a wife in a loveless marriage. She smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol and starts out young and vibrant before quickly becoming worn and weary. Jolie gets all the surface elements across, but isn’t given anything deeper to play. Without the emotions behind the actions it comes across flat.
This leaves it to Damon to carry the film on his own. To his credit Damon gives a strong performance. He is one of the best actors working today and brings a quiet intensity to the role.
Wilson starts out a creative, poetic soul, who sacrifices his true identity to become a government agent. Damon makes that sacrifice believable and even painful. The coldness he reveals as he watches the aforementioned interrogation is chilling and saddening.
While Damon gives a strong performance he too can only do so much with material that never goes much below the surface. Damon’s character isn’t given any real emotional conflict until the last half hour of a two hour and 40 minute film. Too bad because it is a good conflict: what comes first your country or your family?
The film’s overarching theme is that you can’t trust anyone and when this is explored in the latter parts of the film it yields some moments of interesting drama. The problem is that you wait for nearly two hours before anything that holds attention occurs and by then any interest is fading fast.
There is nothing wrong with a slow-boiler that creates tension at a deliberate pace, but DeNiro as a director takes too long and it is unclear what we are building towards. The film jumps back and forth in time between 1939 and 1961 in a fashion that is confusing and unnecessary.
The script by Eric Roth (“Munich,” “Ali,” “The Insider”) doesn’t give a sense of what Wilson and his various colleagues are doing. It would seem even in a film about the CIA we aren’t allowed to know what they are doing.
It doesn’t help that settings, whether they be in Germany, London or Washington, are often non-descript and blend together. Aging make up is done poorly, so there is little help there in giving the audience a point of reference. Only the titles give a proper indication of when and where the scenes take place.
Visually, DeNiro’s direction is strong. He utilizes shadows and focus effectively to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. The look of the film is right and had editing been tighter, the taut, intelligent, thriller buried in the hulk of a film that exists now may have emerged. As is we’re left with a film with lots of potential that is seldom met.