Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ghosts and the machine

Frequent readers of Brevity know that I see many free advanced screenings, but this does not mean I see a different version than what's eventually released. So even if I did have comments to make to the studio rep in the hallway (for example, "Sean Penn needs to stop acting like Taylor Hicks"), I don't share because it won't help salvage a lost cause. Case in point: The Good Shepherd.

This movie is disappointing because its juicy subject -- the origins of the CIA -- is given a long and boring treatment. The setup is fine: Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is recruited through his very upper-crust WASP upbringing, parlaying a membership to one of those Yale secret societies into the ultimate secret society: the spy world. His loyalty to the brotherhood earns the respect of Gen. Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro, who also directs), who wants a spy agency that remains powerful in postwar society, but not too powerful.

As I understand it, The Good Shepherd is not based on a true story, and Edward Wilson is a fictional amalgam. So why create a stoic and unresponsive character to dominate a three-hour movie? Aside from endurance, Damon really exercises no acting muscles here. (Neither does his makeup people; he looks the same, even though the film covers a few decades.) Worse yet, Wilson works in counterintelligence, which sounds exciting, but is really an excuse for lazy writing. (You can throw in a spy twist here or there because none of it makes sense anyway.)

A much better movie would have spent more time following Wilson's bosses, telling the story of the ones in that era who had real power, from Yale to overseas to Washington, DC. It wouldn't have to be that political, though audiences may not help but draw parallels to Bush 41, a former head of the CIA. And a supporting cast eager to work with this director was already in place: Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton, Billy Crudup, and Joe Pesci. Instead, the whole experience was both wasted time and wasted opportunity.

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