The Good Shepherd is a great movie. Big in its themes, its ideas, its executions. Grand in its interweaving of the political and personal, the clerical and the tragic. Robert DeNiro's second film as a director -- after A Bronx Tale, years ago -- was dismissed by most critics and shunned by audiences when it opened in North America around Christmastime, but I'm telling you, The Good Shepherd is the real deal.
What do we owe ourselves? What do we owe our countries? Our families? How do we live with the decisions that we make? The film, written by Eric Roth, utilizes the complex prism of the C.I.A. to tell this story and ask those questions. We watch Matt Damon's character evolve through college and into a career C.I.A. man, step-by-step, in flashbacks and real-time, and through it all Damon maintains the same stoic, almost grim demeanour: rarely does a smile flash across this man's face. Rarely can we tell what he's thinking. Most of the time it seems that he doesn't know what he's thinking, either. That's the point. Lost in a labryinth of lies and deceptions, maintaining a moral code at all costs, he eventually comes to a point where loyalties intersect; where the right thing to do is impossible to ascertain; where good judgement merges with darker, fiercer instincts. One where we live with the decisions we are forced to make. Or choose to make, which can be even more tragic.
If The Godfather used the Mafia as a metaphor for the American experience, then The Good Shepherd utizilizes the C.I.A. for similar purposes. (In that regard, it's an interesting counterpoint to Norman Mailer's massive, majestic 1991 novel of the C.I.A., Harlot's Ghost.) Is it as good as The Godfather? No, but that's fine; almost no films are. But Francis Ford Coppola is one of The Good Shepherd's producers, and the film aims at similar ideals -- explorations of business and family, fidelity and trust in a world where neither notion applies, but both are expected.
The film is long, and slow, and it unfolds. It develops, then envelops. Everything is restrained, held-back, kept inside. Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, even Joe Pesci (!) pop up, but Matt Damon is the anchor. His performance is so low-key that it will probably put half the audience to sleep (as might the film, truth be told), but that's the point: these are men engaged in the most nefarious undertakings known to modern governments, and yet they must perform and act as if they nothing more than ordinary bureaucrats. These days, we want our actors to emote; Damon doesn't. He acts. Which might be even harder.
It has the density and complexity of a great novel, this film does, and near the end of the film, when things come together, when the pieces fall into place, it attains a sad and simple majesty that, yes, rivals The Godfather for emotional impact.
It's not for everyone, this film. It's pacing and its structure and its emotional complexity harken back to a different time, when people went to films for different reasons. Movies today, even the good ones, the Academy Award nominated stuff, relish and revel in pyrotechnics, computer-generated or otherwise. We want to see our actors explode with rage and anger; we want to see dramatic tensions unleashed in violence, verbal and physical. This is a film centred on quiet conversations in crowded bars. On the things left unsaid between fathers and sons. On mysterious looks across midnight streets. On the way a hat is placed just so, being noticed only by those who are trained to notice such things.
And it doesn't flaunt its depth, and its greatness. Its validity. That's the thing -- this flick is valid. My favorite line, a great line, the line of all lines, comes midway through the film, when DeNiro's character, one of the first C.I.A. recruiters at the dawn of the Cold War, hobbled by sickness, slumps into his car. He's explaining to Matt Damon where as an agent he'll go and what he'll have to do. Idealism doesn't come up. A film that previously allowed its characters to trumpet the necessity of God, and country, and stopping the spread of evil throughout the world, now dispenses with such obvious bullshit.
"In the end, we're all just clerks," DeNiro says. Offhand, almost.
And the car drives off.
That may sound like a throwaway line, but the timbre of it, the tone of it, the nonchalance, says it all.
In the end, we're all just clerks.
The tragedy of the film, the beauty of it, is that at the end you're left wondering: if that's the case, then was it all worth it?