Judge Ryan Keefer thinks that this movie probably would have been better off as a film about sheep.
Our review of The Good Shepherd, published July 17th, 2007, is also available.
"Someone asked me why when we talk about CIA, we don't say the CIA, and I told him, "You don't say 'the' when talking about God."
The Good Shepherd was a movie that couldn't miss. It was the first directorial effort for Robert De Niro since 1993's A Bronx Tale, and when De Niro comes calling, the stars flock right to him. In this cast are six Oscar winners (two for De Niro) and 11 Oscar nominations, and screenwriter Eric Roth even won one for his script of Forrest Gump. Yet The Good Shepherd seemed to fall flat both critically and popularly. Wha' happened?
Facts of the Case
Roth's script follows the story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting), through two decades of his life from 1939 to 1961, from his experiences in "The Order of Skull and Bones," a secret society in Yale University, through his life as a civil servant, providing loyal service and dependability to a fledgling undercover group of agents that would later be known as the Central Intelligence Agency. It shows him as a professional, but also as a family man, being introduced and hastily married to Margaret (Angelina Jolie, Girl Interrupted) after impregnating her on one of his first retreats as a Skull and Bones member. While he doesn't knock up either of the next two people on his retreats, General Sullivan (De Niro) and Phillip Allen (William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman), they bring him into the society of people that wish to help America however they can, starting with military service and then going from there.
As I write this review, I'm about to leave the current position I've been working in for a little over a year. Am I going to miss the job and the company? Well, in the past 15 months, I've been (in no random order and probably incomplete): a supervisor, a friend, a drinking buddy, an admin, a bodyguard, a bank, a rep, a ride, a confidant, a walking Blockbuster store, and, my favorite, an enforcer. Of all the places I've worked in, this one was by far the most…colorful. If I can ever get off my widening arse and write a story about this place, they will be a pretty big chapter. I wouldn't trade the time, the people, or the experiences here for anything, but I'm running away from this place in full stride. Now if you buy me a mango mojito, I'll be more than happy to tell you some of these stories, but, at present, they're secrets to the rest of the world, save for my wife. Now imagine having some really mind-blowing secrets about your job that could globally change some things, and not being able to at least tell your wife/husband/significant other any of these things for 20 years.
This is the dilemma that Damon's character has in this film. Unlike previous films, Damon internalizes everything, becoming a figure that is invisible, sometimes even in his own home. By putting a hat, glasses, and drab brown topcoat on the guy, he becomes just like you and me, except his job was to help try and defeat communism in his own little corner of the world. And the way Damon tries to "unpretty" himself is pretty commendable. The problem in that thinking, at least in this aspect, is that Roth's story seems to give more credit to Wilson's contributions than perhaps may be accurate. Not to mention that the film unfolds over 22 years of Damon's life without even significantly aging him. I would think that for scores of other people, carrying around this burden of silence would wear on you after awhile, but Damon takes his father's suicide and other potentially life-changing events in stride, as if he's overmedicated and has no desire to feel anything, never mind the superficial things that one would notice on the "concealer" (I know that last part was a bit Ronnie James Dio, I'm sorry).
Which is why the time given to his marriage with Margaret is so disappointing. It's one of many traps that Roth's story falls into. It lures you in because it aspires to do a lot of things, but it reaches on everything without really impacting anything. The runtime of the film has been a bone of contention with some people (and at two hours and 40 minutes with little action, it's a minor test), but the only problem I had with it was that it didn't hammer too many nails in the wood. Wilson's character is a cold, quiet person, but because Wilson himself shows almost zero emotion and most of the characters around him follow this pattern, exactly why and when should we care about him?
The 2.40:1 VC1 encoded transfer isn't too shabby. A large chunk of the story is covered in the shadows, so the blacks look really good and provide an excellent contrast. As a pleasant surprise, the Dolby Digital Plus option sounds better than I expected it to be. Sure, there's a lot of dialogue that requires some volume overcompensating to hear, but in the London bombing scenes, you feel the explosions from the outside, which is a nice touch, and, in the few scenes were action was required, everything sounded crystal clear.
On the extra material side, in an HD-DVD exclusive, there is some additional material that is available via the Universal "U Control" function, which is similar to the Warner Brothers In Movie Experience. By selecting that option, a "U" icon pops up in the lower right-hand part of the screen, and by pressing enter, you can scroll through the content in a film. However there's not too much content on The Good Shepherd. To the credit of the cast, DeNiro, Damon, Jolie, Hurt, Turturro, and Michael Gambon (who appears in a supporting role) discuss the story they worked with, what they think of DeNiro as a director, and what they thought of each other. Roth discusses how he put the story together, and there are some interesting observations about how things were in that time. It's an OK track, but a couple of things bug me about it: first, it would have been nice to include it on the SD version; second, it goes away during most of the second act; and third, it's tougher to navigate than the IME. Overall it's fine, all things considered. In fact, the more appealing extra was the deleted scenes, about 20 minutes' worth, including a subplot surrounding Wilson's brother-in-law returning to America after being presumed dead and being witnessed passing Soviet secrets. That should have easily been inserted here and replaced any other collection of dramatically inefficient footage.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A note to those potential renters or buyers; there are some reported issues with playback of the HD portion of this disc on the Xbox HD-DVD add-on drive, along with the Toshiba second-generation players. To my knowledge, there is no comment to date by Universal on any sort of issue or consumer best practice to get this to work. Personally, I've got the Toshiba HD-A1 and this ran OK.
The Good Shepherd could have gone in several different directions. However, its main character seemed to lack a lot of the emotional facilities that would have made for a more compelling person or story. As I alluded to earlier, having all those secrets has got to get to you emotionally sooner or later, and even I have some funny stories to tell now. But please use Mount Gay rum in my mojito, OK?
As a reflection of the prior history of the accused, the court finds them guilty, but sentences them to community service, which entails watching an Alias episode or two to see that sometimes, less is more.
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