25 January 2007 | pyrocitor
Too much like the agency it portrays: slow, murky, unclear and emotionally distant
Speaking as a viewer who had been eagerly anticipating the release of this movie since way back in the days when Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to star, I can honestly say I was very disappointed in the final outcome. Perhaps the film had simply become too hyped, with everyone proudly boasting it as "De Niro's comeback", but... suffice to say, no matter how hard I tried to enjoy this movie, it completely failed to entice me in any way, shape or form.
Director Robert De Niro tries a bold new touch by attempting a "CIA feel" for the film, in the sense that an element of mystery is present throughout the entire plot, attempting to better immerse us in the world of lies, deception and uncertainty that was the early CIA. Unfortunately, this method backfires very noticeably, as the plot seems to weave all over the place and we are presented with flat, uninteresting characters who are denied the further development or screen time which might actually have made them appealing. We are simply presented with a slew of famous faces in tiny roles, appearing and disappearing so quickly we barely have the chance to register their presence, but there is no connection with the characters, nor the long, overly confusing convoluted plot they play a part in.
But the film's real weakness is the apathy factor. In a recent interview, De Niro acknowledged his intent that the plot should be more elusive and less obvious, to make the viewer work harder and appreciate the film further. He then proceeded to mention how viewers should be emotionally affected and connect with the characters, even if the plot may not always be clear, and we may not always what's going on, or who's killing who, or why. This is where De Niro's film really loses its viewers; the fact that not only is there not enough emotional connection to coast by, ignoring a lack of plot continuity, but the fact that there is no emotional connection whatsoever. Not only do we not know what is going on, nor are able to keep up fast enough to catch onto what few plot clues we may, but we can't invest enough interest into the film to do so. After a few scenes of brief, murky, unexplained and unrelated plot excerpts and confusing flashbacks from present to past times (made more difficult by the fact that James Wilson, Matt Damon's character never seems to age, and appears the same even 20 years later) we lose interest entirely, and find ourselves unable to care for the characters, nor care what is happening. We are kept at such a distance, both through an intentionally unclear plot and by uninteresting flat archetypes of characters that any interest we might originally have retained in the film quickly evaporates.
It's a shame that the film is so emotionally distancing though, as on the exterior it does appear to be a very stylish and classy piece of work. The cinematography is superb, capturing many unique, innovative shots and scenes, and the costume and set design are simply sumptuous, perfectly capturing the feel of the time period in a glossy, picturesque fashion. It is a shame how fully the apathy factor permeates the film though, because Eric Roth's script seems to be terse, tight, and engaging, but many lines are inaudible through muttering or fast speaking characters, and we are simply kept at such an emotional distance it is beyond us to make an effort to follow the rapid fire, confusing exchanges. We want to like the script, but it is so twisty and clouded with uncertainty, much like a CIA document itself, that we find ourselves also left in the dark.
De Niro has assembled a stellar cast here, but he seems content to reduce most of them to very un-flashy cameos, giving us little chance to connect with any of the characters. Matt Damon is an effective figure as the film's star, James Wilson, remaining admirably cold, detached and stoic throughout the film, but the plot backfires once again - a lead character who is meant to be, all pretenses aside, boring, still comes across as boring, no matter how strongly they are played. Angelina Jolie seems a bit out of place as Wilson's spunky yet abandoned wife; she plays the part well enough, but fails to submerge her star power and charisma in a role where a much less noticeable and subdued female lead would've been far more effective. John Turturro stands out as a vicious CIA interrogator, one of the few flashes of emotion or engaging character action in the entire film, and Joe Pesci makes good use of his far too brief cameo as a mob boss. There are also noteworthy appearances by Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Tammy Blanchard and Timothy Hutton, but their parts are reduced to far too brief and uninteresting segments for us to really connect with or care about their characters. De Niro himself almost steals the show with a tiny role as a military general who constantly complains about his feet.
All in all, the Good Shepherd comes across as a tremendous disappointment, considering the incredibly successful film it was poised to be. Maybe I had too many expectations, having looked forward to the movie for so long, or maybe the film was overly hyped, but either way, the film falls flat as far too long, self indulgent, emotionally distancing and just plain uninteresting, wrapped together in a bundle of self-imposed apathy. All except for fans of Robert De Niro or the rest of the cast willing to sit through an extremely long and un-engaging movie should give this one a pass, lest De Niro's self confidence be flattened forever.