December 21, 2006

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The Good Shepherd (R)
Robert De Niro weaves dark yet flat historical fiction about the birth of America’s foreign intelligence agency in The Good Shepherd, an almost three-hour movie.

Two hours and 40 minutes is a long time, even when you’re spinning through World War II and the first half of the Cold War. It’s a particularly long time if you forget to breathe life into your characters and just allow history to happen at them.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the picture of WASPy existence in early 20th-century America. He attends Yale and is happily dressed in drag for a production of H.M.S. Pinafore but off stage he seems to remove personality as easily as he does makeup. He’s asked to join Skull & Bones and accepts, even when the initiation is a humiliating (an frankly rather homoerotic) mud-wrestling match with the other new initiates wherein the occasional older boy will pee on them.

Ah, our nation’s leaders!

As his college career nears an end (roughly 1939/1940), Edward gets an offer from an influential general (De Niro) to work in a soon-to-be-established foreign intelligence agency. Edward gets a bit of early intelligence gathering experience when a professor (Michael Gambon) is suspected by FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) of being part of a pro-Nazi group. Edward finks on the man and doesn’t feel particularly bad about it (the professor did, after all, plagiarize a poem and then try to hit on Edward).

As dispassionate as Edward seems about life in general, he does appear to have hints of what looks like genuine affection for Laura (Tammy Blanchard), a pretty girl he doesn’t introduce around much, perhaps, she guesses, because she’s deaf. Though in something like love with her, Edward doesn’t bring her to a Skull & Bones retreat and as a result ends up having drunken sex with the aggressive sister of a friend. Clover (Angelina Jolie) is a lively girl from a good family who nonetheless realizes that her job is to get married. Helpfully, she gets pregnant, requiring Edward to marry her and give up Laura.

Luckily for Edward, he spends only a week in his loveless marriage before he’s shipped out to serve in the newly created O.S.S. He is first in London — where he realizes that his Fuehrer-loving professor is actually a British intelligence officer — and then in Berlin, where the end of World War II is shadowed by the escalation of the cold war. Along the way, Edward learns that being in intelligence means lying and killing, even friends and lovers.

Six years later, Edward returns to the family he barely knows — his son Edward Jr. has never seen him and Clover, who now calls herself Margaret, admits that she’s had an affair. His awkwardness at real life, however, can be easily pushed aside once the C.I.A. starts up and he’s given counterintelligence work there. He watches tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union get tenser and plays spy vs. spy with a Russian agent code-named Ulysses (Oleg Stefan).

Wrapping around scenes of Edward’s O.S.S. and early C.I.A. days are scenes of Edward’s involvement in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion where, in this movie at least, the invasion fails because a mole tells the Cubans where the invaders would land.

Over and over again, Edward is betrayed by friends and, when forced to chose between Skull & Bones (or O.S.S. or C.I.A.) and family or friends, he always chooses being a spy over being a man. You could argue it’s because Edward’s dad, as we learn early in the movie, killed himself rather than fess up to some unnamed dishonor. Or maybe it’s because for a man this quiet, this unmoved by life, it’s just easier to know things that you can’t tell people than it is to develop relationships.

Or perhaps it’s because the movie, though rich in detail and historical context, is thin on actual emotion. For all that his tightly-set jaw does give us a good picture of this man, Damon’s performance does not really fill out Edward’s personality. We are left with the sense that he doesn’t have much of a personality and that does not make for a terribly electrifying epic.

There are interesting moments, however, enough to make the movie a nice DVD rental for a drowsy evening. The best one comes when Edward, representing the government’s ardent desire to get rid of Fidel Castro, turns for help to Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci wearing a Hyman Roth costume), a gangster whose problems with the new Cuban government are strictly business (“nationalization” being code for kicking gangsters out of their casinos and hotels). Palmi runs through the country’s ethnic groups pointing out that they all have something — for Italians it’s their families and their church, for Jews it’s their traditions, etc. What, he asks Edward, do you people have? We have the United States of America and the rest of you are just visiting, Edward replies. That scene is one of the few that hints at some of the guiding principles of this new clandestine society and the potential repercussions on the country and its role in the world.

A movie full of scenes like that? Now, that could have been shiver-inducing in all the best ways. C+

Rated R for violence, sexuality and language. Directed by Robert De Niro and written by Eric Roth, The Good Shepherd is two hours and 40 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures in wide release.