“I’ll tie your shoe.”
Robert De Niro has, in The Good Shepherd, made a movie that fails to engage with its audience for the entirety of its near three hour run time. I don’t have exacting standards, but my standards are slightly greater than this.
The fault does not lie at the feet of Matt Damon, but rather at those of his character: here he has been written into a corner as a man with no emotions. It’s easy to portray no emotions on the silver screen, but it’s infinitely more difficult to make someone care about these lack of emotions – even if the film itself explores the cause of this lack.
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) gets invited to join the secret service after he reports his professor Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon) for Nazi sympathising. Initially hesitant, Wilson decides to enter the service directly after being trapped into a loveless marriage with Clover (Angelina Jolie).
Over the next twenty-five to thirty years we witness the breakdown of a marriage, the spoiling of a son, and the rise of the CIA, all in the frame of a leak.
The Good Shepherd could have been interesting. I certainly saw it talked up in a few places on the internet before its release in the US. “Boring” is an adjective that I am loath to use in regards to movies, but The Good Shepherd is certainly far from interesting. I feel it is my duty to pay attention to the movies that I see, yet one cannot help but have one’s mind wander when presented with a plot of minimal intrigue laboured over nigh on three hours. All of the most interesting material, such as Matt Damon wearing a dress to play Buttercup in HMS Pinafore and Michael Gambon’s character deemed a security breach due to his open homosexuality, is gone very quickly indeed. There is no coincidence to the fact that these events occur at the point that Damon is still allowed to register emotion.
When he finally meets his son after the war, Damon tries to regain some of that lost emotion but it is impossible to connect to the two on a father-son level – especially given how awkward his son is, both in character and acting.
Seeing as I’m talking about stealing from other movies this week (although admittedly I saw this two or three weeks ago), I think that it’s worth noting that De Niro seems to have inserted part of The Godfather Part II amidst all of the other things in this movie: Wilson visits an old Jewish man with “connections” (Joe Pesci) at his house in Miami, where he is surrounded by children. They take this opportunity to discuss Cuba and so forth.
As such, I failed to take this scene at all seriously. I could not even tell you what it was about, but I could instantly see why Francis Ford Coppola (who apparently rejected the offer to direct this movie because he felt, quite rightly, that it had no character) received an executive producer credit.
Making a movie run for three hours is not the same as giving it substance. I like political history, but The Good Shepherd is a strange beast: it places Americans in historical contexts and makes vague insinuations that amount to nothing; it is a character study of a character that has absolutely no personality. If there was a message in here about how the Central Intelligence Agency came to be and what it was supposed to represent, I’ve no idea what it was. Also, Billy Crudup: get a new part to play.