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THE GOOD SHEPHERD – Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler

December 22, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

I have to tell you, I was really, really looking forward to “The Good Shepherd”. It’s the second time behind the camera for actor/director Robert De Niro, and I loved De Niro’s first film, “A Bronx Tale”. If you haven’t seen it, do so… it’s an immensely moving and remarkably energetic piece of cinema, absolutely wonderful. With “The Good Shepherd”, De Niro has moved from tiny human drama to an epic political drama. In attempting to tell the story of the CIA’s birth, De Niro has put together a great cast, and brings top-notch production values to the proceedings. Unfortunately, he bites off more than he can chew.

The idea here is to tell twenty year’s worth of CIA history through the eyes of one fictional character, played here by Matt Damon. The problem is that twenty years of history is difficult to cover in just one movie, and the lead character is an absolute bore. Of course, that’s partially the point. The newly-formed CIA seeks agents that are non-descript bland, professional white males that no one will notice. Edward Wilson (Damon) is the perfect guy for the job. He is an extraordinarily plain man. He has no sense of humour, doesn’t tend to express any sort of emotion, and seems relatively uninterested in anything other than his education and his work.

He is a family man, but only because he is forced to be. A one-night stand with a friend’s sister (Angelina Jolie) turns into a pregnancy, and because this is the 1940’s, he is expected to marry her to avoid bringing shame to either family. He doesn’t love her, nor she him, but they marry, and then don’t see each other for six years (he’s working overseas). Wilson makes weak attempts at being a father to his son, but in general, he doesn’t think much about his family.

Over the course of 167 minutes, the movie places Wilson in numerous important situations, from World War II to the Bay of Pigs, meeting with and spying on numerous officials, operatives, friends, and enemies. There’s a lot of interesting ideas brought up throughout the film, but it can never focus on one area long enough to make us care. The non-linear storytelling only adds to the confusion, made more confusing by the fact that absolutely no physical effort is made to indicate the Damon’s character is aging. He looks too old to be a student at Yale, and too young to be the father of a college graduate.

You may be wondering about all the other stars in the film… most of their appearances amount to no more than glorified cameos. Robert De Niro, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, and John Turturro only have a few scenes each, with Gambon leaving the biggest impression as a Nazi sympathizer teaching at Yale. Joe Pesci and Timothy Hutton each appear for about sixty seconds, and then they’re gone. The only actors (other than Damon) that show up regularly are Jolie and William Hurt, but they don’t really have anything interesting to do. Most of these actors are merely filling functions, spouting out important-information-only dialogue from Eric Roth’s rather dull screenplay. That’s a big surprise, considering that he co-wrote “Munich” and “The Insider”.

Damon’s acting is intentionally bland, but he fails to show us any inner depth. Unlike, say, Bill Murray’s performance in “Broken Flowers”, there doesn’t seem to be anything underneath the nothingness, leaving us with a cardboard shell of a man. Gambon’s character begs Wilson to get out of the CIA “while you still have a soul”, but it doesn’t really seem like he’s got one to begin with. A few brief scenes early on also seem terribly out of place. The otherwise anti-social Wilson is seen performing a Gilbert & Sullivan tune dressed in drag during his college days. I sincerely feel his character would find such a thing beneath him (not to mention the nude male mud wrestling he participates in… I was half-expecting Borat to show up).

What’s perhaps most interesting about “The Good Shepherd” is how lifeless it is. There doesn’t seem to be any pulse here, despite numerous stories of spies, broken family relationships, murder, espionage, treason, and betrayal. Writer Roth’s own “Munich” serves as an infinitely better example of how to do this sort of thing… but, to be fair, that film had the benefit of focusing on a very specific period of time, whereas this film tries to soak in far more information than 167 minutes can successfully contain.

The music, written by Marcelo Zarvos (who scored this year’s “Hollywoodland”) and orchestrator Bruce Fowler (who has worked on many Hans Zimmer scores) bears a certain resemblance to the film… it’s very professional, completely cheerless, and rather mundane. Really, it works fairly well in the film. The music often resembles the work of Philip Glass, particularly the fluid main theme. Piano plays a major role in the score, usually wandering introspectively over a bed over of sombre strings. The music maintains a low profile for most of the film, wandering about in a depressed manner to accentuate the overall gloominess of things. The couple of occasions where it rises above a murmur are powerful ones, particularly during a torture scene midway through. It all works reasonably well in the movie, but I suspect it’ll make a rather dull album. Makes you wonder what James Horner, who was the original composer attached to the project, might have done with the material.

“The Good Shepherd” isn’t a bad movie, exactly, just a very disappointing one. The performances (aside from Damon’s) are all very professional and credible, and the filmmakers have obviously done a great deal of research in preparation for this project. However, those looking for a history lesson will leave with little more than they brought to the film, and those looking for an engaging drama or thriller will be bored. I hate to say it, but when the dust settles, “The Good Shepherd” is sort of a waste of time.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Edward (2:37)
  • Bay of Pigs (2:47)
  • Edward’s Secret (2:32)
  • The Whiffenpoof Song (Baa! Baa! Baa!) (performed by Rudy Vallee) (1:38)
  • Fredericks’ Lure (1:24)
  • First Test (2:41)
  • Blue Skies (Irving Berlin) (2:31)
  • Edward & Laura (2:03)
  • Embraceable You (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin) (3:41)
  • Tribeca Bounce (performed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra) (2:03)
  • Clover (2:30)
  • No Rain a Fallin’ (performed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra) (2:12)
  • CIA (2:15)
  • Spy Lesson (2:51)
  • Day of the Locusts (4:39)
  • Christmas Eve (2:49)
  • Spy Trade (2:31)
  • Welcome Gift (1:32)
  • So In Love (performed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra) (1:43)
  • Edward & Laura Part 2 (2:15)
  • There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame (Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II) (0:42)
  • The Interrogation (2:28)
  • The Violin (1:23)
  • Come Rain or Come Shine (performed by Ann Hampton Calloway) (3:30)
  • Miriam (4:16)
  • Ofrenda de Amor (performed by The St. Louis African Chorus) (2:22)
  • Silouans Song (Arvo Pärt) (5:30)
  • H.M.S. Pinafore, Act 1: Hail! Men O’War’s Men/I’m Called Little Buttercup (performed by The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company)(1:43)

Running Time: 71 minutes 07 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6782 (2006)

Music composed and conducted by Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler. Orchestrations by Rick Giovinazzo. Recorded and mixed by Richard King and Lawrence Manchester. Edited by Todd Kasow, Shari Schwartz and E. Gedney Webb. Score produced by Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler.

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