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November 12, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Good Shepherd"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't think I've watched an American movie as slow, as solemn, and as hushed as Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" since ... well, guess.

A few hints: In "The Good Shepherd," beautifully detailed period homes contrast with beautifully-detailed period workplaces. Years pass while underlit men confer in hushed tones about sinister and dangerous things, and loyal but in-the-dark wives grow emotionally desperate and finally tip over the edge. Loyalties are tested. What ought to be kept impersonal becomes, inevitably, all too personal.

That's right: "The Good Shepherd" is not only aiming for "Godfather" status, it's also using a "Godfather" strategy. Where in "The Godfather" Francis Coppola used the Mafia as a metaphor for American capitalism, in "The Good Shepherd" De Niro is using the history of the CIA as a way to talk about contemporary American politics -- the Bushies and their elite-WASP style of ruling more specifically. (Coppola is credited as an executive producer on the film.)

The picture is certainly beautifully crafted in many ways, as well as acted with mucho conviction. And the lighting, costumes, and sets all contribute to a sumptuous, dignified realism of a type we haven't been able to enjoy in movies much recently. Bravo to all that.

Even so, I found the movie a near-total snoozefest. Main complaint: What on earth is the film's story? Matt Damon plays a Yale poetry student who's recruited first into Skull and Bones, then into WWII-era government intelligence, then into the early days of the CIA, then into intrigue within the CIA. Some devious shit happens. Some more devious shit happens. Finally the deviousness and the shit hit home.

And that's it -- that's all, storywise, this two-hour-and-40-minute long film gives us.

Its energies, in other words, are far more focused on what's being said thematically than they are on telling us a crackling yarn, let alone with introducing us to juicy characters, or inviting us to explore charged situations.

The film's "story" is so general and abstract that, for all the darkness and the brooding, little seems to be at stake. Well, scratch that -- "America" is what's at stake, we're meant to understand. Up on screen are a lot of preppy WASPs trying (in their chilly, controlling, proprietary way) to look out for what they feel is "their" country's best interests. It all slips out of their control just as it seems to have slipped out of the Bushies' control. The ruling-class blood not only runs thin; it runs out.

But the film's characters? "Underimagined" doesn't begin to describe them. Although he seems meant to start off as someone with a few ideals -- a poetry student, etc -- the Damon character in fact plays onscreen as a near-complete cipher. Since he's masked and ungiving right from the get-go, we don't care if and when he loses the soul we've never seen anyway. As his wife, Angelina Jolie at least gets to cut loose in an early scene or two of effrontery. Very quickly, though, she's reduced to complaining that Matt never opens up to her.

Otherwise, the film is populated by weighed-down silhouettes, secretive guys in dark suits, lowkey turncoats, and skillful Hollywood WASPs (William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Billy Crudup) playing hard-to-follow behind-the-scenes power games, musing about the Cold War, and looking appropriately deceitful in a variety of poker-faced ways.

Incidentally, you may watch the film and disagree with me entirely. I make no claims for my taste in hyperserious spy tales. As much as I often adore sexy-spoofy spy novels and movies, I don't generally like the supposedly grownup, complex espionage stuff. Le Carre bores me, I have no interest in sticking it out with Alec Guinness as Smiley ... In fact, the whole Masters-of-the-Great-Game thing strikes me as silly -- like a gang of little boys playing stupid schoolboy tricks on each other. So take what I say here with a larger than usual grain of salt.

As for "The Good Shepherd" ... Lacking an effective story, the film is devoid of suspense and surprise; it's all moments and ideas. And, because the characters haven't been sufficiently brought to life on the writing level, the film's bucketfuls of deliberate and committed acting are completely wasted. De Niro encourages his performers to take their time. Does he ever -- the scenes he directs don't just breathe, they do pranayama. But the film's people are so undernourished that you simply can't tell what's going on with them. They definitely appear to have weighty inner lives -- but what on earth do those inner lives consist of?

Here's one way of thinking of it: Watching "The Good Shepherd" is like beginning the "Godfather" saga with "Godfather 2." As magnificent as "2" was, let's be honest: Its magnificence rests entirely on a base of feelings, people, situations, and relationships that were laid down by "Godfather 1."

Although the storyline of "1" is sometimes portrayed in intellectual discussions as unworthy of Coppola's directing artistry, well, ... Without the cheesy melodrama of "1," how much would "2" mean to anybody? C'mon, critics and historians: That's one corker of a suspense story, as well as one that supplies a scorecard-full of living/breathing characters. Neither of these things -- good plot, fullblown characters -- are notable in many of Coppola's other movies, are they?

Let me get hyper-technical: When Michael shoots Sterling Hayden in the restaurant, when Sonny is gunned down at the tollbooth ... Those aren't just great moments in the abstract. They're carefully-created turning points in the lives of fully-inhabited characters who we have come to know in the context of a brilliantly-engineered storyline that keeps drawing us ever further in.

In brief: What "The Good Shepherd" mainly left me reflecting was that Mario Puzo's contribution to "The Godfather" -- to what some feel is America's best movie -- has been more than a little underappreciated.

If the conjunction of the words "thoughtful" and "spy picture" appeals to you -- and if it amuses you to accept a suggestion from someone who's generally unfavorably inclined towards the grownup-spy-story genre -- can I suggest another film? Try the very fine WWII drama "Enigma," a fictionalized treatment of the British effort to crack the Nazi code. It's full of quietly virtuosic writing (by Tom Stoppard), acting (by Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam and many others), and directing (by Michael Apted). The story is complex, tense, and absorbing; the visuals are atmospheric; the suspense hits home; and the payoffs are very satisfying.

Semi-related: I wrote about "Enigma" back here. Steve Sailer cracks a few jokes about "The Good Shepherd" here. De Niro talks to MovieWeb about the film here.



posted by Michael at November 12, 2007


I did not appreciate the first half of this review, particularly the comparisons to The Godfather and the mounting dread that I would actually need to add The Good Shepherd to my rental queue.

Thankfully, you rebounded to report that the film lacked a compelling story or characters with any depth. I can now continue to ignore it. Thanks, Michael. Outstanding review.

Posted by: Joe Valdez on November 12, 2007 3:57 AM

When I was an undergraduate (a million years ago) I admired a recruiting device by one of the British Intelligence Services. They simply put up a notice in our Maths Reading Room. The notice was cunningly worded so that its meaning had to be inferred indirectly. I presume that it was the decoding people at GCHQ who wrote the ad; it left me rather impressed - a nice trick for finding people who liked both maths and words.

Posted by: dearieme on November 12, 2007 5:53 AM

What "The Good Shepherd" mainly left me feeling was that Mario Puzo's contribution to what some feel is America's finest movie has been more than a little underappreciated.

Yes, I think so. Have you seen the miniseries of "The Last Don"? It had an interesting effect on me: I liked it a whole lot, but that left me with a permanently changed sense of the Godfather phenomenon.

Posted by: J. Goard on November 12, 2007 7:53 AM

I agree completely. Actually, Sailer summed it up great:

Damon's CIA man is so superhumanly affect-less that he never even notices that he's married to ... Angelina Jolie

Posted by: JewishAtheist on November 12, 2007 10:46 AM

Speaking of sexy/spoofy spy tales---isn't it about time for an update of "Modesty Blaise"? Without, I hope, Angelina Jolie...

Posted by: David C on November 12, 2007 12:10 PM

Also Matt Helm!

Posted by: David C on November 12, 2007 12:11 PM

As much as I often adore sexy-spoofy spy novels and movies, I don't generally like the supposedly grownup, complex espionage stuff. Le Carre bores me, I have no interest in sticking it out with Alec Guinness as Smiley ... In fact, the whole Masters-of-the-Great-Game thing strikes me as silly -- like a gang of little boys playing stupid schoolboy tricks on each other.

You nailed it, Michael.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 12, 2007 12:38 PM

I think a far better way to tell this story would have been a "Singing Detective" kind of thing. There were plenty of opportunities for creating great characters; the deleted scenes (untimed, so they were probably dumped early) led me to believe that Jolie's character was a lot more interesting on the page. And let's face it, that woman ain't gonna pick no Stupid Appendage of the Hero role when she's getting all the best scripts.

Anyway, I did feel that the film didn't live up to the promise of the film, and I was definitely flummoxed as to the point of the whole thing, yet I did enjoy it.

BTW, have you seen Michael Clayton yet? That looks more up our collective alleys.

Posted by: communicatrix on November 12, 2007 1:36 PM

Having read "A Legacy of Ashes" about the CIA, I think there's definitely a movie in there, but it's NOT "The Good Shepherd."

I'm sure ethnicity and class played a role in the development of the CIA, but not in the way the movie suggests. The guys running the CIA weren't really patricians, they were a bunch of hustlers on the make. (Really, just like JFK.) Maybe it could have been a comedy about a bunch of clueless goofs who couldn't stop playing games, even when their noses kept getting shoved in the fact that they had no idea what they were doing. Something sort of like "The Office" except with guns.

"The Good Shepherd" sits there inertly on screen for 2.5 hours just to set up the exchange between Eli Wallach and Matt Damon on how Matt's character considers anyone other than a WASP to be no more than a guest or a visitor in "his" country. It's a good line, but it only takes about 10 seconds to deliver. That leaves us with 149.84 minutes to kill.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 12, 2007 3:32 PM

"In fact, the whole Masters-of-the-Great-Game thing strikes me as silly -- like a gang of little boys playing stupid schoolboy tricks on each other."

Congratulations. You've just done the equivalent of saying you don't like fish because it tastes fishy.

That is, the "gang of little boys," characterization is precisely Le Carré's point. More than that, it's precisely what one takes away from the entire field if one studies "intelligence" at all (or have any direct dealings with it).

I'll admit to having a non-typical preference for Le Carré, because I so greatly admire his readings of his books for audio. I think he's one of the finest audio actors ever, and I've long thought he deliberately writes in a character with a difficult accent early on because he knows he'll get to do the performance for the audio book. But, really, when it comes to distinctive voices -- John Huston, John Gielgud, and Le Carré.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on November 12, 2007 4:13 PM

Joe -- It's always nice to be able to keep a movie off your Netflix queue, isn't it? That's a great site you're running, btw. I'm just starting to catch up with it ...

dearieme -- That does sound like an effective way to attract exactly the crowd you're looking for.

J. Goard -- Haven't seen "The Last Don," but now feel that I should catch up with it, tks. Don't some say that Puzo ran out of gas after "The Godfather"? But it sounds from what you're saying that he still had something left over ...

JewishAtheist -- That is a funny line. And Matt's character valuing Angelina's so little (and seeing so little in the way of fun sexual possibilities there) does pretty much kill a viewer's respect for the character ...

DavidC -- Modesty Blaise! Matt Helm! Bring on the great sexy spoofs! If they've got a little "real" intensity and juice in 'em, so much the better!

Peter L.W. -- I'm relieved to see that you and DavidC also don't share the taste for serioso spy stuff. I'd thought all intelligent film and book buffs liked serious spy stuff.

Communicatrix -- That's a great concept. All singing, all dancing, all deceiving ...

FvB -- I should really learn a little something about the spy biz. Was the book you read a good one? Your description reminds me of a spy novelist whose books I really do adore: Ross Thomas, who wrote spy fiction as a species of high comedy. Have you ever tried him? I promised myself to blog about him long ago but still haven't gotten around to it. Dazzling stuff, especially "Chinaman's Chance." One of the most entertaining novels I've ever read.

Hal -- Yeah, Le Carre is legendary for his readings, and god knows he's got a lot of the spellbinder and performer (if not the hambone) in him. I actually "get" Le Carre perfectly well, I just can't stand the drizzly, lugubrious tone. Though I did enjoy "Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and the film of "The Russia House." Exceptions to one's general taste-preferences are always fun to note ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 12, 2007 4:34 PM

I agree about the The Good Shepherd--I kept waiting for something to click, and it never did.

A friend recently turned me on to the spy novels of Alan Furst, set in pre- and early-WWII Europe. Give them a try, if you aren't ready to write off the whole genre.


Posted by: Narr on November 12, 2007 6:06 PM

MB said: "Neither of these things -- good plot, fullblown characters -- are notable in many of Coppola's other movies, are they?"

I'm not a student of Coppola, but I have always admired one of his lesser known films, "Turner," - fabulous biopic with an eccentric inventor/entrepreneur as its subject, well-played by Jeff Bridges, no surprise.

Also: I'll put in a good word for Michael Clayton which communicatrix mentioned above. One of the best movies I've seen this year (although not one of the most original) or in a long while.

Posted by: Judith Sears on November 12, 2007 11:24 PM

Judith: ITYM "Tucker". (Full title _Tucker: The Man and His Dream_). BTW, I didn't even know Coppola made that till I looked it up.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 13, 2007 12:30 AM

How can you say Godfather I is underrated? I've never heard it referred to as anything but a classic. (By the way, if you want to see the even greater movie that inspired it, check out Il Gattopardo, THe Leopard, with Burt Lancaster).

The Good Shepherd really sucked though. Good review. They threw over a chance to really illuminate how the oppressive power of the establishment really works in favor of their own lame race-conscious liberal fantasy of how WASP power once worked. Those WASPs, so repressed! Thank God we're all funky and diverse now!

The Bush family history with the CIA is really fascinating...the great CIA movie is still to be made.

Posted by: mq on November 13, 2007 12:48 AM

Narr -- Thanks for the rec, I'm putting him on my "to read" list. Have you tried Martin Cruz Smith? He's another serious spy novelist that smart people tend to love. I've got an audio of one of his books waiting for me ...

Judith, Rich -- Have you noticed that Coppola's got his first new movie in years coming out soon? I wonder what it'll be like. From trailers and such it looks like one of his stylish art movie attempts, sorry to say. I wish he'd let himself connect with "real" characters more than he tends to, don't you? He seems to imagine that deep inside he's a freewheeling "creative" New Wavey kid. You've got me remembering that I semi-enjoyed his "Gardens of Stone" -- quite touching and sad and "real" ...

MQ -- Hey, always nice to see you drop by, eager to hear if you've made any blogsurfing discoveries recently. As for "Godfather 1," I was trying to make the case not that the film is underrated -- that'd be hard to do! But that Puzo's plotting/character contribution to what makes the film so fab has been underacknowledged. Coming up with a yarn worth following, a half a dozen twists and surprises that "work," and a big handful of living/breathing characters is an achievement that ... Well, I think it's a great thing for an artist to do, but for whatever reason it tends to get taken for granted, even looked-down-on, as having nothing to do with genius and artistry. Meanwhile, we really all depend on it. As you'd imagine, I blame the insanity on modernism, but maybe there are other good places to place the blame too...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2007 10:54 AM

Let us know how you find the Furst(s).

I read Gorky Park and enjoyed it, and one other whose title escapes me at the moment. I even liked the movie adaptation of GP. (Whatever will future generations make of such a miserable, dystopic, kakacracy as the USSR?)


Posted by: Narr on November 13, 2007 4:09 PM

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