Friday, March 2, 2007

Hidden Surprises

The Good Shepherd hardly seems to have created a ripple of attention. Sandra Hall in the SMH even labeled it excruciatingly dull. Maybe it’s a guy thing. I admit it’s long and that’s always a drawback with the reviewers. It’s almost devoid of the so-called action associated even with quality spy stories. It presents its tale while meandering in and out of contemporary military and espionage history and fullest appreciation requires some background knowledge about such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and Guy Burgess. Probably knowledge of more than a few other incidental details which escaped me would add even more appreciation. It’s told in a totally quiet way. The only shouting takes place in a couple of scenes of marital dysfunction between Wilson (Matt Damon) and his generally estranged wife Margaret (Angelina Jolie). Even the last execution is handled with only music on the soundtrack. For the rest the action takes place mostly in darkened rooms and offices, tidy homes and a few parties conducted by Yale’s Skull and Bones Society, a secret organization of which, as we all know, George W Bush is a member. But the story of Wilson’s life in these shadowy confines is brilliantly told and I can’t recall a moment of longueur. I guess it helps to be fascinated by the subject matter. If I can find any equivalent for the method of its story telling it’s something similar to those quiet spy novels about the Second World War written by the American Alan Furst. He’s also an acquired taste, admired by those who appreciate the evocation of the atmosphere of the time while wandering through narratives in which almost nothing, except occasionally eventful journeys, takes place though there are always a few incidental assassinations and friends will betray each other or descend into venality. In The Good Shepherd Wilson, the morally upright, albeit flawed spy at the centre of it all walks his slow and sedate path through the world of counter-intelligence. By the end his body seems hunched into itself, having absorbed a lifetime of deception and mistrust from friends and enemies alike. He has ceased to smile and never had a sense of humor. His life has been about absorbing disappointment.

I must confess that I didn’t think Robert De Niro, one of the very greatest actors of his generation, could direct a film as well as he has done here. His couple of earlier films were altogether simpler and more straightforward. Maybe the greatest credit belongs to the scriptwriter Eric Roth who has written something of quite extraordinary literacy and imagination. It integrates characters into events superbly. I’m happy to concede it may not be to everyone taste or fall into everyone’s sphere of interest. But it hit right on mine.