Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review - The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd - U.S., 2006

Rarely does a film as long as Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd amount to so little. Like so many of Hollywood’s other supposedly accurate depictions of history, De Niro’s film has an overly ambitious scope, stretching from the 1930s to the 1960s, and unfortunately writer Eric Roth chose a non-linear narrative to chronicle the events of these years with. The film begins with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, leaps back in time to show the pre-CIA days of the Second World War, and then jumps ahead to the investigation into the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. One of these events explored in detail may have made for a rather riveting film; three made for an unfocused and ultimately dull one.

The film stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, apparently a composite of several characters. Why Hollywood continues to invent characters or merge characters in films that claim to show true stories I’ll never know, but the fact that it does renders much of what we see in The Good Shepherd blatantly false. Similar events may have occurred, but not necessarily these specific events; real people may have done the things we see in the movie, but not these specific people. So what’s the point then? In the film, Damon’s character was apparently in charge of ensuring the success of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and when it fails, he is responsible for finding out why. One of his clues seems to be a video that is mysteriously left at his front door. He hands it over to people who know a thing or two about analyzing grainy videos and then for the most part waits for them to find something. Wilson’s other lead is a Russian defector (John Sessions) who fails a polygraph test yet for some reasons earns Wilson’s complete support. That this faith is misplaced is never truly in doubt.

I suppose some will argue that the film is not really about the CIA, that it is really about a man who thought his life was going one way only for it to be detoured by the call to serve his country. There is some truth to this. However, Damon’s Wilson is too unemotional and reticent for viewers to learn much about him. He rarely opens up and prefers to remain silent even when asked direct questions. These qualities may enable him to do his job well, but they are not the kind of qualities that create excitement or drama. After all, there’s a reason why James Bond cracks jokes and smiles smugly even as danger approaches – viewers are drawn to personality, and Wilson doesn’t have much of one. As the film meanders along, too many characters are introduced to keep track of them all. Many of them appear in only one or two scenes and therefore fail to resonate as important. This unfortunately includes De Niro himself. As General Bill Sullivan, his role in the film seems to be to recruit Wilson and then repeatedly tell him not to trust anyone. I kept expecting him to end each warning with “Agent Mulder.” I suspect The Good Shepherd would have been a better film if he had. (on DVD)

2 stars

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