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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Good Shepherd

Maybe it’s because it just happens to be “that” time of the year, but when my perfect husband and I joined our dear friends Sid and Sheila Weisman along with their lovely (yet sadly still unmarried at 29) daughter Naomi to see The Good Shepherd at the Essex Cinemas this past weekend I half-expected to find a couple of sheep in the lobby and a brighter-than-usual star shining down over the theater. How often do you get to visit The Good Shepherd with three Weismans in tow? Last I heard it only happens every two thousand plus years or so. Surely, in the midst of the gazillions of little ones on hand to see Charlotte’s Web, Night at the Museum, Happy Feet or Eragon we might even find one heck of a baby, but more likely than wrapped in swaddling clothes he (or she) would be found in something pricey and coordinated from head-to-toe complements of Baby Gap.

Before I got the chance to start asking parents their names (“Mary? Joe?”) my precious hubby herded us into our theater quickly for fear of our not getting our “usual” seats as it was a busy night and we always like to sit in the top row, in the corner, where there is less distraction from the multitude of talkers (at least you know they aren’t going to be behind you). Of course, the latest odd phenomenon is people (you know who you are) who pay money to come to the movie and then distract the rest of the audience with the halogen glow of their cell phones blazing as they spend the entire film ignoring the movie while they text message their friends. Now that is annoying, but I try to pretend that the glow is simply coming from Satan’s fairies that’ve arrived to suck the souls of the inconsiderate users straight to Hell where their bodies will join up later.

Speaking of joining things, that’s what The Good Shepherd is all about. It stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a perfect Yale college boy in the 1930s. He is academically gifted, with a terrific memory and a mind for deduction and calculation. He’s also drop-dead handsome, which doesn’t hurt, and in no time he is recruited into the secret Skull and Bones Society, that still-present mysterious “fraternity” of rich young men that is virtually guaranteed a network of success in the decades to come because once you are a member you are always a member and the “oarsmen” as they are called always come before anyone or anything else.

While at a Skull and Bones retreat on Deer Island, Maine, Edward meets Clover (Angelina Jolie; Mr. & Mrs. Smith), the seemingly shy daughter of S&B mainstay Senator Russell (Keir Dullea; The Day My Towers
Fell). Clover is also the sister of Edward’s best friend and college roommate John (Gabriel Macht; A Love Song for Bobby Long), so as a favor to him he agrees to accompany her for the evening as she is without an escort. “Shy” Clover practically rapes the inexperienced Edward the minute they are alone and soon enough he breaks up with the girl he really cares about, a deaf student (Laura; played with heartbreakingly realism by Tammy Blanchard; Bella), and marries Clover since she is pregnant. If this wasn’t based on real life I’d have complained that this part of the film has to be the most over-used movie cliché in history. Depending on the genre of movie, just thinking about sex leads to two possibilities: pregnancy or death by masked slasher.

While all these changes are going on Edward practically forgets a casual encounter he had with S&B member General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro
(Hide and Seek) who asked if he would be interested in working to help the country become a safer, better, stronger America. Of course Edward answered yes, but since then he has had many other dramas taking over his life. It’s not until a military guard arrives at his wedding reception with sealed orders that Edward realizes just how deeply he has committed himself, but it certainly beats the other commitment he faces at the moment ~ a marriage to a woman he barely knows just because she is carrying his child as a result of a one-time fling.

So off to Europe Edward goes and the story unfolds like a complex piece
of origami being studied. The entire tale is told in flashbacks or flash-forwards as the film covers the thirty year span of Edward’s life and career from 1938 to 1961, culminating with his involvement in the Bay of Pigs drama during President Kennedy’s term of office. Edward, you see, is the man who became instrumental in creating the counter-intelligence unit of the CIA, and the movie shows many of the elaborate and sometimes downright morally (and legally) wrong things the agency has done to garner information from people, including torture, injecting innocent people with drugs to disastrous results, and assassinating its own when they are deemed as questionable risks.

Counterbalancing the drama Edward experiences in Europe is what he also lives through in his rare visits home. His son, Edward Jr. (played by Tommy Nelson; The Ten, as a child and then by Eddie Redmayne; Like
Minds; as a young adult) doesn’t even know who he is when he first arrives to visit, but that is hardly to be expected since he is six years old by then. Edward himself sees a trio of boys playing in the snow covered yard out in front of the home he bought for himself and Clover before leaving the US and has no idea which of the boys is his. As for Clover, she’s now become a socialite that goes by her given name, Margaret, and has filled her life with a variety of activities that leaves no time for him. He’s a stranger to her, and she has no warmth for him even though he has come to care for her through letters and the real loneliness of being away from the familiarity of home for so long.

The relationship between Margaret and Edward as well as the one that develops between father and son makes for interesting human drama and shows us that Edward does have an emotional core that can be reached, though he does also rightfully earn his reputation as a “wall of stone” most of the time, not given to talking in more than single sentence explanations or greetings. His language is sparse and so seem his emotions. It is only by gesture that we rarely see his true feelings, and these collide with a business decision towards the end of the film in a most painful way when he is forced to choose between family and country in a most difficult encounter.

Real applause must go to Christine Beveridge, the make-up genius on this film, who manages to perfectly age Damon and Jolie without it appearing to be a jarring difference or one that cries out “prosthetics.” Too often when movies “age” an actor he ends up looking like a rubber mask of himself, but in this case the change is so subtle that it is sometimes barely noticeable. Kudos too to director Robert De Niro, who rightfully spared us tons of gore in scenes which could have delivered it. Considering his pedigree (everything from The Godfather: Part Two to The Departed) I’m sure the temptation to splurge on blood must have come up, but he held back and still achieved the same horror and distaste he wanted us to experience and think about in terms of what we hear going on right now with our present day government and its ways of “not torturing” people to gain information.

Both leads play their roles well enough. Damon is perhaps too much a
“pretty boy” to pull off playing the father of a grown man as he has to do towards the end of the movie, but he turns in a solid performance as usual. Jolie, however, shines in her small and understated part as his wife. Perhaps because she is so universally well-known it is fascinating to see her playing a subservient 1940s and 1950s housewife. She becomes a drinker, but the issue of alcoholism or showing her as a sloppy drunk is never shown. She just implies the problem with the constant presence of a glass of booze in her hand and the half-detached attitude she seems to present in her later incarnation. We know that if this was her real life, Angelina/Clover would kick Edward’s butt for neglecting her the way he has, but she’d also have a surprise waiting for him when he came home after six years as by then she’d have adopted at least half-a-dozen kids to keep her company.

The Good Shepherd is good entertainment. If you want to escape the family fare that is filling up most of the theaters this time of the year and want a provocative adult drama, then this is the one for you. Check it out at the Essex Cinemas.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

This was third on my list behind NIght at the Museum and Rocky Balboa this weekend, so it will have to wait ... from your review, however, it definitely sounds like something I would like, so I'll have to play catch-up with it