Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Good Shepherd, The (DVD) (2007)

As a high concept non-action spy thriller (no car chases! no explosions! no showdowns with bowler hat tossing henchmen!) The Good Shepherd is something best watched on DVD. Robert De Niro and Eli Roth fully deserve their Oscar nomination with this movie, but due to its non-action status and running length, it is best appreciated in your favourite cushion at home, with a glass of Chardonnay in your hand. And any tome on American history written by Noam Chomsky by your side - you might end up consulting its pages more often as the movie progresses.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the central character, and the movie spirals around his role in two periods in American intelligence history - the years leading to the creation of the CIA, and his role in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and its aftermath. The most audacious thing that Roth's script does is to turn the spy genre on its head. It's not a furious denouncement of the failure and corrupting nature of American intelligence at all (and one might argue that perhaps its subtlety and very understated criticisms may have cost it the crowdpleasing quality that a major Oscar contender should have). Instead of say, a generic angry denouncement or an overblown morality tale of innocence lost, the script of The Good Shepherd surprising and audacious, stripping both Yale's Bone and Skulls secret society (which provided both candidates for the 2004 US presidential election!) and the CIA of their aura, mystery, and mythology ever so effectively. According to De Niro and Roth, what damns these two elite institutions together is the fact that the secret rituals and cloak and daggers are nothing more than grown-up boys recreating their atavistic love for playground games, Hardy Boys novels, and the whole need to be approved by the select few. In other words, behind the two most powerful secret societies of the modern world lies a petty juvenile impulse.

Better yet, the duo further damn the CIA and their patriotic subterfuge by stripping the spy game of its heroics and excitement - Edward Wilson, his masters, collaborators, and enemies could very well be faceless, boring bureaucrats who work in offices full of cabinets and boxes - little insignificant men who use domestic housework terms to describe their spy operations, very little men of little heart and stature who must imagine they are doing a greater duty, who call their skills the "dark craft", as though they are in some Harry Potter movie. And of course, these heroic bureaucrats, these masters of the dark craft are responsible for their complete and utter failure at Cuba.

Perhaps because of its high concept and the dedication of the director and scriptwriter to the original premise, the end result is The Good Shepherd turns out to be the least exciting spy movie in existence. It is most a series of anticlimaxes, disappointments, and as lethargic as watching a few good men wasting their lives away in a two and a half hour film. Because this movie moves and plays more like a hefty 4-part miniseries, you might want to watch this DVD a little by little, but I assure you the genius and subtlety of the story will seep through by the end.

DVD review

Most Oscar nominees and winners of 2007 got what I call the "rush to DVD" treatment, where in some unholy haste to sell these movies to home audiences, DVD publishers and distributors have chosen to produce frills-free basic DVD packages. The Good Shepherd lacks a director and scriptwriter commentary track (most disappointing, I know), as well as what I consider almost compulsory: a featurette on the life and career of James Angleton, the CIA chiefs whom Edward Wilson is based on.

What we have as form of compensation are 7 deleted scenes, which are all worth watching. An entire subplot was taken away, as well as more buildup towards the breakdown of Edward Wilson's marriage. The last deleted scene feels like an alternate ending, and I suspect some might find it a far more appropriate way to end the movie than what De Niro has chosen. There's no fatal flaw in these deleted scenes at all, and I rather suspect that if included in the final cut of the film, it would make the total runtime for a 4-part mini-series.

First published at incinemas on 3 July 2007

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