December 21, 2006

The Good Shepherd

Robert De Niro's first directorial effort since A Bronx Tale in 1993, The Good Shepherd purports to be "the untold story of the birth of the CIA." It is actually an interminable series of only loosely related scenes about characters that we don't much care about doing horrible things we don't much care about either. By the time the only character with any personality arrives on screen, played by a seemingly ancient Joe Pesci, my mind was screaming "why God why isn't this movie over yet?"
Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a man with an unreadable poker face and the barest minimum of personality. He is smart, of affluent upbringing, with very little sense of humour. Perfect for international espionage. Not so perfect for carrying a three hour journey that spends too long saying too little. Only one character gets him to crack the slightest smile. She gets less than five minutes of the total running time. He's smart, he's unreadable. I get it. I'm bored now.
As a fresh inductee to Yale's Order of Skull and Bones, he knocks up a senator's daughter and thus is obliged to marry her. We get the obligatory scenes of her complaining that he's never home and never shares anything with her. They son is a complete tool, constantly a day late and a dollar short. It's a dysfunctional family, but not in a particularly unique or interesting way. He's a shitty family man. We get it. We got it the first time. Quit repeating yourself.
The espionage elements are only mildly more interesting, and considerably less focused. I kept waiting for all the divergent story lines to come together in a fascinating and worthwhile way, but no. By the time the movie ends, I didn't care anymore. Whatever I was going to get out of it, I'd already long figured out anyway. Was it that he betrayed the United State of America during the Bay of Pigs to protect his son? Then why'd they kill his son's fiancé anyway? The answer is that after the 150 minute mark, I was entirely focused on the exits.
Never before have I seen a movie so pointlessly bloated with so little to say. Every whiff of promise is relentlessly stomped out as soon as possible. Michael Gambon's sexually deviant professorial spymaster ends up a floater. Joe Pesci's mobster is in and out after one scene, with nothing particularly resulting from it. William Hurt's leadership character, who isn't even that interesting, goes out in a perfunctory web of intrigue that wasn't really elaborated on. Never have I seen a collection of professionally shot and acted scenes so utterly fail to build and expand on each other. They're all free floating islands, which means every cut has to build its momentum fresh. It makes the running time — did I mention the movie is three hours long? — feel much more epic than it otherwise would have.
And what did the movie ultimately have to say about the CIA? It was founded by rich white boys from secret societies whose mistakes affected the history books. There's a big surprise. What a waste of a night. With a different script and a different editor, they might have had something here. ()


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