Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Good Shepherd

A spy saga sans soul.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup
Rated: R
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Language, Four Scenes Of Sexuality

Director Robert DeNiro should know how to make a good movie. He's been in plenty of them. The Good Shepherd would be a good movie if it weren't so long and brooding. What DeNiro has made is a sprawling spooky spook picture awash in shadows and spy games as it jumps back and forth in time and space and fails to explain its motivations.

Damon stars as Edward Wilson, a laconic Yale student turned spy after he's recruited into the Skull and Bones society -- the ultra-secret fraternity that grooms political big shots. Wilson cuts his teeth by exposing a Nazi front organization on campus. That opens to door to intelligence work in WWII England and later with the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. The film's plot revolves around Wilson trying to uncover a leak that led to disaster in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

All of this spy work takes Wilson far from his wife Margaret, a.k.a. "Clover" (Jolie) and his son. Their marriage exists in name only, and Edward's relationship with his boy hardly moves any emotional needles. Wilson's spy contacts show more warmth. He still has feelings for another woman he met in college.

But it's hard to see if Damon has any feelings at all. His character is so dedicated to duty and country, it reduces him to a soulless operative. Wilson is one-dimensional, and one dimension is stretching it. He carries a flat, lifeless expression through most of the picture. This is the kind of person who walks into City Hall with a warped perspective and fully-loaded assault rifle.

All of this could be forgiven if the film delved into what motivates Wilson's character and probed whether great spooks are born or made. We never really know what he gets out of spy work besides some secret sense of pride. I'm not sure he even gets that. Again and again we are reminded of the lonely and unrewarding aspects of intelligence work. Enough already. Many minutes could have been shaved out of the picture by eliminating the plodding moodiness.

One critic compared The Good Shepherd to The Godfather, perhaps seizing on the birth of dangerous organizations as a common denominator. I simply don't see the comparison. The mob picture and its sequel had genuine emotional depth, something sorely lacking in this latest spy flick.

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