Monday, July 2, 2007

The Good Shepherd

Frankly, I am puzzled by the vituperative reviews of The Good Shepherd (Universal Studios, 2006) directed by Robert De Niro which run the gamut of "dreary" to "It's tough to slog through a movie that has no pulse." I was only mildly interested in the film initially but enjoyed it a great deal when it was released on DVD recently.

I will paraphrase the plot synopsis from the film's website (as it is a bit convoluted and I don't want to confuse the details) ...
The film reveals the hitherto untold story of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1939, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a promising Yale undergrad, is invited to join Skull and Bones, a powerful secret society at Yale. His involvement leads him into a relationship with the federal government, which recruits him to help them on several covert operations. He meets General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), a powerful military intelligence official. Sullivan asks him to join the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA).

The film takes us to Cuba, Germany, the Congo and the states of Washington and Virginia (the seats of CIA power), and travels back and forth in time from the death of Edward's father Thomas Wilson (Timothy Hutton), in 1925, to the failed Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961 as Edward remembers the many small steps that led to his present day involvement with the Bay of Pigs. But I think it only requires a little patience to navigate these different scenarios which are supplemented, at times, with news footage to explain the historical context and enormity of the events involved.

Damon, baby faced as ever, is hard to imagine as the father of a grown son in the later scenes and I will admit that Angelina Jolie seems sadly miscast as Clover/Margaret Russell, Edward's lonely, volatile wife whom he is compelled to marry (again out of a sense of honour). It is a bit difficult to swallow that Edward would favour the plain, if virtuous, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), over the fiery and beautiful Clover. But perhaps, from the character's perspective, Laura is a safer choice, easier to contain and better suited to Edward's restrained personality. The character development of Clover seems choppy as if a vast amount of back story had been cut.

William Hurt is more convincing as Philip Allen, Wilson's patrician, slimy superior; John Turturro is effective as Wilson's devoted CIA underling Ray Brocco who does the dirty hands on work and Michael Gambon is wonderful as Edward Wilson's Yale mentor Dr. Fredericks. Robert De Niro, the director, appears as the profane General Bill Sutherland, who pulls the strings and makes Wilson jump; all are convincing and chilling to watch.

I see the resemblances that some critics have pinpointed between Matt Damon's portrayal of Wilson and Michael Corelone in The Godfather: the honest young man, who starts out with the best of intentions, is sucked into a corrupt and evil world, in this case, working for the American government. Even the proper attire that Wilson wears throughout, complete with hat and tie, echoes the somber, overburdened Michael Corleone at the end of the first Godfather. As Corleone pointedly asserts in the film, his way of dealing with the world is not much different than the secrecy and murderous intent of certain large democracies bent on having their way in the world.

Matt Damon has been criticised for playing the role in a subdued fashion; however, personally, this is exactly the way I imagine a key CIA figure would behave in real life (perhaps a stereotypical view?): always correctly, always dispassionately, always with a sense of duty to the higher good of the defense of one's country. And it is utterly believable when Joe Pesci, an Italian American, asks "What do your people have? We have our families, our church." and Wilson answers, "We have the United States you're only visitors here. "

I don't interpret his perceived lack of public emotion as a lack of true passion. Clearly he feels deeply for Laura, his first true love at Yale, although she is hastily dispatched not once, but twice, when their relationship seems to jeopardize the careful house of cards Wilson has created to preserve his true identity and/or his larger obligations. He deeply loves his son, and his father, but all seems subsumed under, I feel, an erroneous sense of duty to one's country.

I think the film very carefully documents Edward Wilson's moral and psychological corruption as well as the dissolution of the fragile emotional bonds that he forges during the course of his life in deference to his country - his willing, and unwilling, betrayals of those whom he loves and respects.

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