Friday, February 08, 2008

Film Review: The Good Shepherd

Robert De Niro's film about the early history of the C.I.A. told through the experiences of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), an agency man who, following the Bay of Pigs debacle, reflects upon his life and career from counterintelligence during World War II through to the failed invasion itself.

The script is very intelligent, particularly since it not only deals with a long period of time but also because it tries to deal with a number of themes. Firstly, there's the historical aspect of it: there's a real sense of period throughout the film and the way in which the history of the C.I.A. unfurls feels very natural and, thanks to De Niro's assured direction, never drags, with the film flitting from event to event and person to person without getting too bogged down in anything.

Secondly, perhaps more importantly, there's the more personal aspect to the story as it examines the effect that working for the C.I.A. has on Wilson's life, relationships and, ultimately, his soul. The film succeeds in creating a murky, paranoiac world and it's easy to see how Wilson could go from an idealist to someone who doesn't bat an eye when his efforts have governments overthrow or people killed. Damon gives a wonderfully understated performance as a man who is trained to keep everything inside and while some have mistaken this for blandness, it actually makes him a more engaging character, particularly as we see that his relationship with his wife and son deteriorate over time not through malice or spite on his part but from his overwhelming dedication to his job and his country, even though this dedication leaves him a cold and empty man.

Thirdly, the script has a contemporary resonance to it as it asks serious questions about the origins of an organisation that is meant to protect the people of America but which, by its very nature, is shrouded in mystery and whether or not it has lost its way. Though it would be easy to over-egg this point, the film leaves it up to the audience to ruminate on it, showing a level of trust in its audiences' intelligence that you don't generally find it films.

The Good Shepherd is a very ambitious film and that is probably its greatest asset, along with the great acting from all involved (and such a cast!), classy direction and the intelligent script. However, its ambition is also its downfall. Due to the very nature of the story it is trying to tell and the aims of its director it has a grand narrative and it can never really linger anywhere. This is a necessity since it prevents the film feeling like a drudge, but it also means that the audience is left wanting more; there are quite literally hundreds of great moments littered throughout the film that could make compelling films in their own right, so seeing them go by in such quick succession makes you feel like there's so much more to the story than what we are being shown. That's not a major flaw of the film, but it does mean that you kind of wish it was longer which, for a 2 hour and 40 minute film, is quite a feat.

Though it is tripped up by its own lofty ambitions, The Good Shepherd is a very fine film. It treats its audience with a degree of intelligence that is very refreshing, never feels like a chore to get through thanks to some very astute pacing, and genuinely has something to say about its subject matter. A hugely rewarding watch if you stick it out.