A couple days ago my dad and I were talking about which movie we’d like to have while stranded on a deserted island. We agreed that the ideal movie should be:
1) Entertaining (to help you forget about the friendly parasites setting up shop in your boopity-boops)
2) Timeless (so you can watch it over and over like a pre-stroke Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve)
3) Uplifting (to stave off the crazies a la Cast Away’s Wilson the anthropomorphic volleyball with a heart of gold)
We also agreed that while The Good Shepherd has enough plot and visual flair to meet the first criteria, it’s also too long by half and depressing enough to make you want to grab a coconut and bash in your own skull. In other words, don’t take The Good Shepherd on any three-hour tours.
The Mole will be happy to note that The Good Shepherd marks Robert De Niro’s second stint in the director’s chair. Apparently, De Niro wanted to direct a film about the CIA and the resulting personal and political turmoil that marked its creation. After watching the finished product I would say he succeeded almost too well.
De Niro obviously has a strong eye for the visuals and composes many excellent shots throughout the film. Foggy boat rides and gloomy London streets stand out with bold shadows and silhouettes and even the ubiquitous office scenes contain a symmetrical sterility that play a strong counterpoint to the twisting plots and machinations.
But if you’re not a fan of the spy games, consider this a big ole red flag. The Shepherd is bursting with codes, ciphers, bluffs, double bluffs, and I’m not positive, but maybe even triple bluffs. It’s never clear exactly who can be trusted and part of the film’s shine comes from the many pieces that never quite come together without a little mental work on your end. Some people will enjoy connecting the dots while more people will probably get frustrated and put off by the continued mind games.
The main participant of said mind games is CIA Operative Edward Wilson, played by Matt Damon. Wilson’s codename is Mother; it’s a silly code name for a man who probably has the smallest sense of humor, ever. Damon will get some serious award consideration for this role since it’s not easy making such a methodical, introspective individual into a watch-able and sympathetic “hero.” But Damon somehow succeeds in doing so with a stony face and the body language of a brick wall.
My main gripe with The Good Shepherd goes a little more fundamental than the visuals and acting, however. De Niro clearly wanted to show the dangerous power wielded by the upstart CIA during the Cold War and the moral dilemmas they faced. Unfortunately, all too often in The Shepherd these dilemmas are acted out as personal tragedies in Wilson’s home life. He is trapped in a loveless marriage with a strange and quiet child and these relationships are stretched beyond breaking in the course of Wilsons’ secretive work. But the extended focus on Wilsons’ home life diminshes its import and pretty soon the string of tragedies seem more like calculated plot devices than anything else. By the end of the film, I couldn’t help but feel that The Good Shepherd was doing its best to make me cry and I resented this feeling of overt manipulation.
The Good Shepherd are really only about too much of a good thing. This is a finely crafted movie that simply tried too hard to make its point. As a result, The Shepherd runs at least 20 minutes too long and remains very, very depressing. For those of you who have the time and the interest, this can be a very rewarding film that will leave you with strong images of a confusing chapter in American history. But if you don’t have an extra 3 hours to spare or a resilient volleyball with a heart of gold to keep you from de-braining yourself, you’ll probably have a better day by skipping The Good Shepherd.