THE VERY GOOD “GOOD” MOVIE
by Harvey Perr
The Good Shepherd
now playing nationwide
Robert DeNiro’s “The Good Shepherd,” from a mordant screenplay by Eric Roth, is one of the year’s most stunning achievements: a darkly beautiful and subversive meditation on the paranoia that created the C.I.A. and on the paranoia that the C.I.A. has created. Every measured step that DeNiro’s direction takes is a potent reflection of that paranoia. As the secrets and lies multiply, as the central character’s dehumanization process takes hold, each turn around the bend grows starker, each image more fraught with mystery and intrigue and – because this is a serious movie with a decidedly serious point of view – with contemplative melancholy. Even as the bodies pile up, in a display of corruption and human disconnection, the film is filled more with rue than indictment, with a sense not of the ironic but of the tragic.
One fully suspected that DeNiro, one of our great acting talents, would have given his splendidly cast actors a great deal of latitude, and the result of his having done exactly that shows up in the pitch-perfect ensemble work here. Matt Damon as Edward Wilson (evidently an amalgam of two real-life characters) has never been so tightly wound, nor has he ever been as good; behind that clenched jaw and those dead eyes, we see a soul being destroyed little by little, and the transition, from an unguarded drag performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Little Buttercup” at Yale to the hooded cobra taking his final walk through the deserted halls of the CIA, is complete. From much of the rest of the cast – William Hurt, John Turturro, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon (in a particularly memorable portrayal of a counter-agent whose homosexuality is becoming a liability), Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup, and DeNiro himself – we get precisely the kind of quality performances we expected. And, although Joe Pesci has what perhaps amounts to less than three minutes of screen time, they are the film’s most unforgettable three minutes, containing the choicest dialogue exchange of the year. But DeNiro’s work with actors can best be appreciated by the performances of two newcomers: Tammy Blanchard as the deaf woman Wilson is in love with; and Eddie Redmayne as Wilson’s son, who can’t love his father enough but whose uncomfortably taut body and hysteria-driven eyes create a language that is in direct contradiction to everything he says.
But this is not just an actor’s film. DeNiro has clearly learned from and absorbed some of the secrets of the great directors he has worked with – there is more Coppola and Leone here than Scorsese – and molded them into a genuine style of his own, taking his time and yet not wasting a minute, being coldly observant but never dispassionate. There are flaws – the relationship between Wilson and his wife is psychologically a trifle pat; there is almost too much to this story that can be satisfactorily told even within almost three hours of film time – but, with the aid of Robert Richardson’s luminously dark-hued cinematography, this is eminently satisfying film-making, and defined by a deeply personal way of looking at the world of espionage. It is a great piece of Americana.