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The Good Shepherd

A 2006 drama directed by Robert De Niro.

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The Good Shepherd -- problematic but still worth the time

  • Oct 13, 2010
The Good Shepherd is one of the more problematic films I’ve seen in a long time. It is difficult either to recommend it or tell anyone to avoid it. If you like spy flicks, then it isn’t a bad one; if they bore you then it is likely it will bore you.

The plot is divided between the professional and the personal. Professionally, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is an Eli Skull and Bones, meaning both well healed and well connected. Through these connections he becomes a spy prior to and during the war. His specialty is counter-intelligence. His career spans a little over three decades. He shifts from Army military intelligence in both England and Germany to the US where he is a major player in Cold War counter-intelligence and eventually head of that function at the CIA. The second plot is the personal. This one is where nearly all of the plot details will reveal twists. All I can really reveal about this portion is that it is very complex and is the true engine that drives the film.

This is a spy movie, so going any deeper into the plot would reveal too much—meaning in the vernacular of such people, if I tell you I have to kill you.

TOP SECRET—if you don’t want to know the plot, avoid the analysis

The most problematic thing about the film is that it jumps around too much. The film covers Edward’s life at Yale in 1939, in England and Germany from 1940-1945, in OSS counter-intelligence from 1946-circa 1957, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. You are given indications that the story jumps by the information at the bottom of the screen, but this doesn’t stop it from seeming jerky and out of control. If the goal is to create a puzzle, then the film successfully does that, but I take issue with it (and I consider myself sophisticated with movies and with non-traditional narratives). The main reason is that the film is nearly three hours long; in contrast, Memento was about half as long, so seemingly randomness of the narrative not only fit the structure, the number of out of order ‘facts’ you had to keep juggling was relatively small.

The main focus is on an audio tape and fuzzy photograph secretly slid under the door of Edward’s house after he returns from the Caribbean where he oversaw the failed invasion of Cuba. The spy parts of the film jump around the armature of the investigation to determine the contents of the tape and the photo.

The spy movie portion works pretty much like all spy movies. Everyone is suspect and more than a few are killed—not all of whom deserved it (oh well, that is the price of keeping the world safe or some junk). For a cloak and dagger story, The Good Shepherd is a bit more dagger and the cloaks are replaced with hats. There are a couple of red herrings, but they are weak and don’t really do much to stop you from figuring things out. The title of the film is The Good Shepherd. I imagine it isn’t the great shepherd because Edward seems to make more mistakes than successes. If counter-intelligence bats less than .500, just how effective is it? Is it better to have it if half the time they either miss a mole in their midst or kill the wrong people?

Once you either figure out what is going on or come to it as it happens, there is an event that is up for debate. After my ophthalmologist finished my exam we talked about movies and she had one opinion of this event and I had the opposite (she also said she was not glad to have seen the film—for me this was harder to answer). Edward Jr (Eddie Redmayne), also a CIA operative like his father, is set to marry a mole for the Soviets. This is a bizarre story in itself, but ultimately is neither here nor there. Miriam (Liya Kebede) flies from her village to where she is going to get married. Before she gets there, the pilot and copilot of the plane open the hatch and toss her out. The question is, who ordered this? My ophthalmologist was convinced that Edward ordered it. I believed that the Soviet agent called Ulysses (Oleg Stefan) ordered it. The reason for this is, while being inducted into Skull and Bones Edward claims the main thing he learned from his father is never to lie (he stays as silent as a statue in honor of dyspepsia rather than open his mouth when he knows what will come out will have to be a lie). The only time he really smiles in the whole movie is when he wishes his son happiness on the day of what was to be his wedding. It is open to interpretation, and depending on your decision, it affects mightily the way you view the film as a whole and Edward specifically.

Before I get to the acting, I have something more personal than not. This may sound Marxist but it isn’t intended to be (but I can totally understand why what I am about to go into would prick a Marxist’s ear). The rampant classism throughout the film removes it so totally from the common sphere it is not that much different than watching a tragedy of errors populated only by various crowned heads. It seems that the entire early American intelligence operatives were not just Elis, but were specifically Skull and Bones. The film is inspired by true events—if this is one of them then I cringe. Remember that I said the whole counter-intelligence operation was less than half successful? If a secret society has to be involved in this messy business, I have to wonder if members of the Benevolent Protectorate of Elks wouldn’t do a better job. The number of black tie gatherings that discussed black operations was overkill and it gave the impression that protecting the country from less than 50% of the foreign (specifically Soviet) spies was entirely a “gentleman’s” pursuit. This is the weakest and most maddening aspect of the film.

Analysis of the twists is complete

The performances were slightly better than average. Michael Gambon, British counter-intelligence, was fantastic. William Hurt, head of what would become the CIA was similarly well placed. Robert De Niro (General Sullivan) was funny, light, and complex; he also directed the film and I can’t help thinking that he gave himself the best lines because he could.

Everyone else does a decent enough job, except Mr. Damon. The problem with him is that he had the same dead expression on his face all the time. If he is a method actor, he purposely ate food that gave him heartburn so he could wear the face of someone whose insides are doing flips. Anyone could do that. I can’t be sure if this is a limitation of the character, or if the choice to have him look facially catatonic was just a poor one.

The film doesn’t suck. It has some interesting and engaging moments, but they are not common enough or handled in a consistent way. If it is raining and you don’t feel like doing anything else, then it probably won’t be a waste of time.

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More The Good Shepherd reviews
review by . November 17, 2008
This movie just goes on and on   And takes up so much time   I watched, and then I had to nap   Before I wrote this rhyme     The early roots of CIA   A group named Skull and Bones   We know that spies do much more than   Just tap the telephones     Secret agents, Russian spies   A clear and present danger   Remember not to trust a soul   Neither a friend nor stranger …
review by . April 19, 2007
As curious as I was about this movie it had me dazed. The 'Good Shepherd' always struck me symbol for Christianity. Shepherds look after their flocks so the sheep can be killed and eaten. What's good about that? Fortunately, sheep don't have the intelligence to be paranoid. With Bourne Identity movies under his belt, Matt Damon has a good pedigree to play spy movies. Is this one a killer or dead on arrival? With a budget of $85m, we've got Oscar-winning actors, writers, cinematographers, and more …
review by . April 09, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Starring an impressive cast with Robert DeNiro at the directing helm, 'The Good Shepherd' has some good stories to tell. Crisscrossing between the early '40's and World War II and the '60's with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the movie pieces together the inception of the C.I.A. A spy movie, yes, with a family drama that includes emotional casualties to match, 'The Good Shepherd' starts from a mason-like fraternity called "The Skull and Bones" and traces the ingenious steps the Allies take during The …
review by . April 04, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
THE GOOD SHEPHERD may take a lot of patience to sit through the nearly three hour tale written by Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump, Ali, The Horse Whisperer, etc) and directed with meticulous attention to detail by Robert De Niro, but in the end the film about the creation of CIA ("ever notice that no one these 'the CIA' just like no one use 'the God'?"). And although the script confuses the viewer by its propensity to meander over many time frames and many places, the result is a tense attention …
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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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A complicated movie about the Central Intelligence Agency and its agents,The Good Shepherdisn't your typical spy movie. Though it stars Matt Damon (The Bourne Identityfilms) and Angelina Jolie (Mr. & Mrs. Smith,Lara Croftfranchise)--actors with considerable experience in the action-espionage genre--The Good Shepherdrequires that they play more subdued and (much less interesting) characters here. The movie focuses on the career or Edward Wilson (Damon), a privileged Yale graduate who goes on to help found the CIA. He is a quiet, serious, and guarded man, even in the most intimate moments with his civilian wife (Jolie, in a role that wastes her talent). Set against a backdrop of real-life events such as the Bay of Pigs,The Good Shepherdis meticulous in creating a realistic timeframe. The film gets a jolt of excitement when Robert DeNiro (in his first directing role since 1993'sA Bronx Tale) peppers the screen with appearances by Joe Pesci, Alec Baldwin, and William Hurt. But those moments are too infrequent. At 157 minutes long, the film is crammed with many factual details, but the characters are shortchanged when it comes to development. Viewers have to wonder why anyone, much less someone like Wilson who has everything going for him, would devote his life to a thankless job that brings so little happiness to himself and his family.The Good Shepherdis an ambitious but flawed film. The actors do a formidable job with a well-intentioned but meandering script. ...
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Director: Robert De Niro
Genre: Crime, Drama
Release Date: December 22, 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Eric Roth
DVD Release Date: April 3, 2007
Runtime: 168 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures, Morgan Creek Productions
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