Friday, December 22, 2006

The Good Shepherd - Movie Review

The Good Shepherd 2006

It seems that screenwriter Eric Roth never met a three hour script he didn’t like. Jesus, Eric. EDIT!!!! The man who won an Oscar, God help us all for penning “Forrest Gump” and co-delivered the lengthy but honorable “Munich” is back with his long and detailed look at the history of the CIA as seen through one agent’s tumultuous and very dramatic life. The film has been labeled a “pet project” by its director, the two time Oscar winning actor Robert De Niro who clearly has been picking up pointers from his buddies Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

The good news is the sterling cast that De Niro has lined up and the very handsome production that keeps our attention riveted through some of the more protracted pieces. And there are some very fine things about “The Good Shepherd”, but we couldn’t help yearning for less. Which we suppose is not the kindest thing to say, but then again, we don’t care.

Matt Damon delivers an understated and very fine performance as Edward Bell Wilson, a CIA muckety muck who we first encounter at the infamous “Bay of Pigs” fiasco in 1961. When the ball drops on this aborted attempt to take Cuba back in the name of the capitalists, Edward begins to look for possible leaks in the chain. Unbeknownst to him, the leak will end up costing far more than he could ever have imagined. The film is told through a series of flashbacks detailing the long and we do mean long career of Edward starting with his days as a Yale freshman who is handpicked to join the homoerotically charged Skull & Bones secret society.

After an initiation that involves nude mud wrestling, water sports and some fine male jiggling . . . we actually don’t remember what happened next, we seemed to have blacked out at the sight of Matt Damon getting pissed on while caked with mud and his hands up some humpy frat boys nether regions. Hmmm. Oh, yes! Turns out the secret society is the first in a chain of events that will seal Edward’s fate.

For Edward Bell Wilson seems to be the perfect candidate for one of the future covert leaders of America. A man who deeply loves his country, mistrusts foreigners, is as straight laced as they come and prefers to remain under the radar. In short, the perfect candidate to work for a covert intelligence operation hellbent on protecting the nation from radicals, communists and homosexuals. No wonder we never enlisted.

The great news for moviegoers is the superb supporting cast that reads like an almanac on talent! Oscar winners Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Joe Pesci, and Timothy Hutton are flanked by such wonderful actors as Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Lee Pace, John Turturro, Keir Dullea and the divine Tammy Blanchard in one of the best supporting turns this season!

Angelina Jolie looks absolutely ravishing as Margaret “Clover” Ann Russell, the sister to Edward’s schoolmate played by the delectable Gabriel Macht who catches Edward’s eye from the get go. And why shouldn’t she? The surprise is that this supposedly perfect young woman is quite the tramp under her perfectly pinned back hair. For it seems that little Miss Clover has set her sights on having Edward and we do mean having him, right then and there. We suppose Clover preferred the quiet humpy type, works for us.

The only stumbling block to their budding relationship is that Edward has been seeing a lovely young lady by the name of Laura, who is rapidly capturing his heart. As played by the Emmy Award winning and Tony Award nominated Tammy Blanchard, this is the standout performance amidst a bevy of talented stars. Achingly real, she fills the screen with her quietly memorable beauty and delivers the goods in every scene. Sadly, Laura may be lovely and intelligent and charming but she is also slightly deaf. Not the woman one would pick if they were on the fast track to government head honcho. And not the woman one is capable of staying with when the catastrophic occurs. For it seems that Clover in her zeal to unzip Edward’s trousers failed to insist on a little protection. Next thing you know, shotgun!

And so begins Edward’s ascension to the CIA brass and his descent into a private life of cold indifference and manufactured posing. The only real problem with watching such a complete picture of a man’s life is the juggling act between the personal and the professional. We can’t help but be more interested in the subterfuge and plotting involved in Edward’s career, and be a little bit bored by the failed marriage storyline which brings nothing new to the table. Yes, we realize that many women prior to the 1960s were bored, alcoholic housewives whose only real problem was rationing out the valium over a long weekend – but it takes such a backseat to the main storyline it seems a bit too tacked on.

The length of the piece only begins to work against the success of the movie when we find ourselves counting down the years to get back to 1961. It doesn’t help that both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie are such lovely and still quite young actors whose process of aging is never quite convincing. By the time their son is a young man, the grey in the temples and the slightly wrinkled brows don’t quite mask their still youthful figures. It’s always a tricky thing with age makeup in films – but one should always stick with this Silver Haired Rule: Less Bette Midler in “For the Boys” and more Julianne Moore in “The Hours”. (Yes, we know that they used a bit of CGI in the latter, so crack the wallet open Bob, you need it!)

And Lord knows, it doesn’t help the film one iota that the actor cast as the scion to Edward and Clover is one Eddie Redmayne, a newcomer who apparently has quite the theatrical training in his native England. Clearly cast for his resemblance to what might actually be the product of Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie’s genetic makeup – pouty lips and blond tips. But after one or two scenes, we were wishing that they had opted for a more . . . how shall we say it, talented actor. Okay, he’s horrid. Not believable in the least. And this is one of the major mistakes in the piece. For the ending of this film requires a gravitas from the young man that is entirely missing. Similar in a way to De Niro’s former mentor Coppola’s supremely bad miscasting of his daughter Sofia in “The Godfather Part III”. There, her awkward performance completely blundered what could have been a grandly emotional finale. (At least Sofia turned out to be a very fine director in her own right . . . we're not holding our breaths for Eddie.)

Otherwise, “The Good Shepherd” does a very nice job of interlaying various plot twists and allowing the more talented actors room to develop nuanced performances. Credit must certainly go to Robert De Niro for his top notch production values: the look of the piece is wonderful and respectful to the various decades it takes to unfold. We should also pat Bob on the back for permitting himself a juicy cameo role as General Bill Sullivan, a shady presence in Edward’s life that acts as a sort of godfather figure. His star charisma is perfectly matched to the man who looms larger than life over the proceedings.

What the film is not capable of is balancing the darkly fascinating intrigue of international espionage with the domestic drama of Edward’s home life. It doesn’t help that Tammy Blanchard is so overwhelmingly tender and true in her portrayal of the forgotten love of Edward’s life that we can scarcely muster up the energy to care about his crumbling marriage. The scenes between Matt and Angelina once they enter their Albee phase never match the quality of the best scenes. Of which there are a few.

The interrogation scene of a Russian defector is bristling with tension and deftly played out. The performances by Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Robert De Niro and especially Tammy Blanchard are all worth seeing on the big screen. So, while we can’t insist you run out and see “The Good Shepherd”, we hope if you happen to find yourselves with three or four hours to kill and a few bucks to spare you could do far worse for yourselves this season. Bless you all!

Directed by Robert De Niro
Written by Eric Roth

Matt Damon as Edward Bell Wilson
Angelina Jolie as Margaret “Clover” Ann Russell
William Hurt as Philip Allen
Alec Baldwin as Sam Murach
Tammy Blanchard as Laura
Michael Gambon as Dr. Fredericks
Billy Crudup as Arch Cummings
Robert De Niro as General Bill Sullivan
Eddie Redmayne as Edward Bell Wilson Jr.
Tommy Nelson as Edward Bell Wilson Jr., Ages 6-7
Lee Pace as Richard Hayes
John Turturro as Ray Brocco
Joe Pesci as Joseph Palmi
Keir Dullea as Senator John Russell, Sr.
Timothy Hutton as Thomas Wilson
Gabriel Macht as John Russell, Jr.
John Sessions as Valentin Mironov #1/Yuri Modin
Oleg Stefan as Ulysses / Stas Siyanko
Mark Ivanir as Valentin Mironov #2
Martina Gedeck as Hanna Schiller
Ann Hampton Callaway as 1961 Deer Island Singer

Cinematography by Robert Richardson
Film Editing by Tariq Anwar
Original Music by Bruce Fowler & Marcelo Zarvos
Costume Design by Ann Roth
Production Design by Jeannine Claudio Oppewall
Art Direction by Robert Guerra
Set Decoration by Elaine O’Donnell, Gretchen Rau & Leslie E. Rollins



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