Monday, October 22, 2007

Monday Movie Review: The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd (2006) 7/10
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is recruited to head Counter-intelligence in the newly-formed OSS, and then to do the same in the newly formed CIA. In what amounts to a roman à clef, Philip Allen (William Hurt) is Allen Dulles, Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro) is "Wild Bill" Donovan, and many historic incidents are fictionalized. Directed by Robert DeNiro.

I wanted to like this movie more than I did. In fact, it does a lot of things right, it's intelligent, thoughtful, and shows the paranoia, devotion, and destructiveness at the heart of a life of secrecy. It also has a lot to say about the hidden elite running the U.S., perhaps moreso in years gone than now, but the Bush family are members of the very same Skull & Bones Society so crucial to the film. It's easy to say, oh racism, oh anti-Semitism, or whatever, but this movie examines the consolidation of power, and the obsessive kind of secrecy that makes distrust (especially distrust of the "other") fundamental. So gays must be violently removed from the inner circle. Catholics can get in, but they must be limited. Women are there to wear pretty dresses and produce children.

Unfortunately, this sort of stifling tight-lipped quality can feel as oppressive to the audience as it must to the people living it. The movie often achieves a kind of bird's eye view of paranoia, but just as often it's just dull. Kind of, O my GODS they're still telling this story they're still fighting World War II IT'S STILL THE FIFTIES! (Made painful because the movie opens in 1961 and then flashes back.)

There's an underlying theme of silence. Crucial news is delivered off-screen. Two key people in Wilson's life are deaf. The idea seems to be that we try to listen, but are often isolated instead. Like I said, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The cast is almost overwhelming, there are so many notable actors of real quality, but few of them are used to good end, as Damon carries most of the show single-handedly. Angelina Jolie has almost nothing to do, and Billy Crudup is little more than a cameo. Tammy Blanchard as Wilson's first love is wonderful, and Damon, in addition to doing a great job, is an actor particularly suitable to a decades-spanning role. His boyish looks let him pull of the extended sequence of his college years, which for most actors would make me snort through my nose.

In terms of spying, The Good Shepherd is marvelous at delivering the minutia of uncovering the truth, of planting falsehood, and of the shifting sands of who is on whose side.

(Covert cross-post rendition)