Friday, March 21, 2008

Film Review: The Good Shepherd

"The Good Shepherd"
*** ( out of ****)

It has been 13 years since Robert De Niro has sat down in a director's chair, after his 1993 film "A Bronx Tale", arguably a contemporary classic. This time around, I don't think De Niro has quite reached the same heights, but, he has made a well crafted film.

Once again De Niro is involved with the C.I.A., if you remember his character in both "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" used to work for the agency. But here in "The Good Shepherd" De Niro isn't going for laughs.

"The Good Shepherd" tells the story of the history of the C.I.A. as seen through the eyes of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). A young Yale graduate part of the famous secret society of skull and bones who is asked if he would be willing to work in a counter intelligence agency which would do in peace time what it did during World War II. Namely spread enemy propaganda.

The film runs 2 hours and 40 minutes. It is one of the problems I have with the film. For a movie to have such a running time, you would think it is an epic. The film doesn't seem as important as the running time suggest. At times I felt I was missing out on something as the film jumps around in time periods. For a film nearly three hours we, the viewer, should not feel we are missing out on anything.

Still there is a part of me which is tempted to reward De Niro for taking his time to tell this story. He doesn't rush it. He allows the story to move at its own pace. It allows characters and situations to set themselves up and lets the audience see them grow. We see a progression in Edward. But at the end of the day, I felt the film falls slightly short of the greatness De Niro had in mind. Clearly this was an ambitious project but we never really get to know these characters' thoughts.

I have a theory the reason for this might be De Niro is mostly known through his collaboration with director Martin Scorsese as playing gangsters. Two of his last great roles were in Scorsese's "Casino" and "GoodFellas". De Niro is usually on the opposite side of the law which he is presenting in "The Good Shepherd". Perhaps he just doesn't understand the mentality of these type of characters. Edward Wilson though does share a common characteristic with those gangsters De Niro has played. They are all paranoid. Edward is repeatedly told not to trust anyone. He has no friends. You never know when someone can be a spy.

Another problem I have with "The Good Shepherd" is the lack of details. The film paints history with a broad brush. Events such as the "bay of pigs" are mentioned but there importance and consequences are never explained. A majority of the film revolves around the Cold War and the Soviets. Yet major world events dealing with the Cold War are left out. No mention of the '56 uprising in Hungary. Or revolts in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The film also doesn't tell us exactly how the C.I.A. works. De Niro doesn't take us inside the C.I.A. kind of odd for a film about the agency's history.

But this is just starting to read like a negative review that really doesn't deserve to be treated so harshly. The best thing one can say about the film is the acting by the cast. De Niro, I would imagine being an actor, knows the little tricks to get the most out of his performers. Damon is probably the most developed character but Angelina Jolie as his wife Margaret has some strong moments. But the script doesn't dwell deep enough inside her past to make her a more compelling character. Alec Baldwin is always a pleasure when on-screen, in one of those cameos that steals the show. Think of "Glenngary Glenn Ross". And William Hurt as Philip Allen, Edward's boss, brings an interesting mystique to his character.

But such complaints about character development seem odd especially when you consider who wrote the script. He may not be a household name but Eric Roth has actually written quite a few films, many of which I've praised. His scripts include "The Insider", one of the greatest journalism films. And "Munich", my choice for the best film of 2005.

In the end though I think a rewrite and some editing could have made what is without question a good film an even better film. "The Good Shepherd" was also nominated for an Oscar for art direction.