DeNiro fails his subject matter
By Lady Liberty
The Good Shepherd
* 1/2 out of ****
It should come as no surprise to anybody who knows me at all that I'd be interested in seeing a movie involving the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, I was more than a little excited to get my ticket and sit back for what I was sure would be fascinating even if highly fictionalized. After having sat through the entire two hours and 40 minutes that is The Good Shepherd, all I can really say is that I was right about the "highly fictionalized" part.
The Good Shepherd begins near the end which, in this case, is the immediate aftermath of the international fiasco colloquially known as the Bay of Pigs. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is a highly placed agent of the CIA who had much to do with the battle plan and who must know fight for his very career and reputation. He's certain there's been a leak, and he determines to find it before he can be entirely disgraced. As he frantically works, he searches his own memories of how his current circumstances eventually came to be.
In the form of flashbacks, we see Wilson as a young child who must deal with the trauma of the death of his father, career military man Thomas Wilson (Timothy Hutton). Later, during Wilson's days at Yale University where he studies to be a lawyer, two things happen that will have a lifelong impact. First, he meets the pretty Laura (Tammy Blanchard) studying in the library. And second, he's invited to become a member of the secretive Skull and Bones. For awhile, he enjoys the fruits of both relationships. But his plans again veer off course when a fling with the sister of a Skull and Bones Brother (Margaret Russell, played by Angelina Jolie) results in her pregnancy.
Wilson does his duty and marries Margaret. But even as he's going through the mechanics of getting married, he's propositioned by another Skull and Bones alum, the formidable General Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro). The general tells Wilson he's been tapped by the president to create an intelligence agency and he wonders if Wilson might not be interested in getting involved. It's difficult to tell whether Wilson accepts more to get away from Margaret's attentions or to fulfill his own ambitions, but accept he does and he's promptly shipped overseas.
Wilson isn't home for the birth of his son, Edward Junior (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne). He's too busy moving up the ranks and behind the scenes of clandestine international intelligence intrigue. He meets his Soviet counterpart, Stas Siyanko (Oleg Stefan), code named Ulysses. He deals with an FBI agent's probing interest in what he does and what he knows (Sam Murach, played by Alec Baldwin). He follows orders issued by General Sullivan and his own immediate superior, Phillip Allen (William Hurt). And through it all, he begins to learn secrets that have a bearing on everything from his own personal life and loved ones to the very security of the country.
Matt Damon is good as is Angelina Jolie (no big surprise there). My only real complaint about them is that neither ages convincingly over the course of a story that spans some 30 years. That is, of course, the result of make-up that's too subtle, but it's also the product of body language that just doesn't fly. Robert DeNiro is terrific in front of the camera (again, not much of a shock), and I really loved William Hurt's performance in The Good Shepherd. Tammy Blanchard was also particularly impressive. Eddie Redmayne, however, managed to get on my nerves in a big way with his effete over-the-top wide-eyed and eager-to-please performance. While this could also be a directorial flaw, I'm inclined to blame it on the performer here.
The Good Shepherd was directed by Robert DeNiro. The project, a decade-long labor of love for DeNiro, was artistically handled, but I'm of the opinion that there was too much art and not enough substance. The inception of the CIA should be a very interesting story. Some behind the scenes tales of the secretive Skull and Bones should also be fascinating. But the combination of flashbacks and brief, often seemingly unrelated scenes evokes the effect of a strobe light at a party. It's cool to watch, but it makes everything seem jerky and some brief glimpses appear entirely out of place. In the end, while I understood what was happening, I didn't really care because the audience had simply been pushed too far aside. Perhaps the focus was too broad, and the movie should have dealt with either the CIA or the Skull and Bones.
Of course, nothing so disjointed can be laid solely at the hands of the director and editors. The screenwriter is also very much to blame. This is a little hard to understand given that Eric Roth has such gems on his résumé as The Horse Whisperer and Forrest Gump, but the script here is never-the-less not as good as it should have been, and at least as far from as good as it needed to be. That's unfortunate all the way around since the possibilities were almost endless until they were dashed far too early and in a regrettably unsatisfying way.
While The Good Shepherd is pretty to watch and has moments of genuine horror that ring terribly true (a torture scene involving a Soviet defector and the ultimate fate of an enemy agent who really only wants to retire to a normal life are particularly disturbing), it doesn't do its subject matter justice. In fact, it doesn't even come close. Even the moments of genuine artistry or flashes of brilliant performances can't save it. The bottom line here in my opinion is that those interested in either the CIA or Skull and Bones should read a book.
POLITICAL NOTES: While audiences will certainly get the idea from this film that the CIA can be ruthless or that Skull and Bones members and alumni have very, very powerful connections, The Good Shepherd is so fictionalized and touches so shallowly on the real stories of either that most will be inclined to dismiss all they see here. The fact is that they probably should. If anything good comes of The Good Shepherd, it will involve those whose curiosity is piqued just enough to delve into the real stories so peripherally touched on here.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Good Shepherd is rated R for "some violence, sexuality, and language." I'd call the movie a "soft" R in that the sex is far from graphic, and most of the violence is implied rather than seen on screen. What most makes The Good Shepherd suited only to mature audiences is the method used to tell the story. It would be confusing at best for those who don't pay rapt attention or for any who need a bathroom break during the course of what is a relatively long film . Frankly, though I didn't need any breaks, I had problems with the "rapt attention" part myself. I caught myself planning a grocery list a couple of times during the evening. If anything sums up just what I thought of The Good Shepherd, it just might be that.
Night at the Museum
** out ****
I had other options for movies to see this holiday weekend, but I simply wasn't in the mood for anything heavy or seriously uplifting. I just wanted to have fun, and I thought Night at the Museum would amuse me with special effects if nothing else. The added bonus, of course, was a two hour respite from all of the last minute Christmas shoppers flooding area stores. I'm pleased to say that, while Night at the Museum didn't exceed expectations, it didn't disappoint them, either.
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is a man with big dreams but a much smaller reality. His ex-wife, Erica (Kim Raver) still cares about him, but she's far more concerned that their son, Nick (Jake Cherry) not be disappointed by his father. Larry, who is once again on the verge of being evicted from an apartment, agrees to seek out a real job so that Erica won't make good on her threat to keep his son away from him until he's more settled. In desperation, he applies for the position of a night security guard at the local Museum of Natural History.
Larry doesn't really know much about the museum and its exhibits, nor does he care. He just wants the paycheck that will enable him to keep his apartment and some small amount of respect from his son. As soon as he gets to the museum, Larry meets a pretty docent named Rebecca (Carla Gugino). She, in turn, introduces Larry to the current security team, and that's when Larry learns that the museum intends to replace the current trio of elderly guards with just one man as a cost-saving measure. The head guard, Cecil (Dick Van Dyke) explains the situation to Larry even as the other two guards (Gus and Reginald, played by Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobb, respectively) interject their own less friendly remarks.
In the end, Larry is left alone at the museum with nothing but his uniform, flashlight, keys, and a rumpled booklet he's told is his job manual. What Larry doesn't know, of course, is that the museum's many exhibits come alive after dark. He discovers that disconcerting fact when he finds a tyrannosaurus rex wandering the halls, but he doesn't have much time to think about it when the T. rex promptly chases after him, jaws wide and tale thrashing. Larry eventually runs into other museum denizens ranging from President Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) to Octavius (Steve Coogan), the commander of a Roman legion; from Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) to a pride of African lions; and from western wrangler Jedadiah (Owen Wilson) to a bad, bad Capuchin monkey named Dexter.
Larry is less than thrilled with his new job which seems only fair since the Museum Director, Mr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) is less than thrilled with his new security guard. But whatever anybody might think, there's more going on than meets the eye. And whether Larry is interested in finding out or not, and whether he's inclined to do anything about it or not, he's bound up in events that rapidly escalate beyond his control. Unfortunately, at the same time, his son is rapidly becoming more disillusioned with his dad as well, and Larry is pretty sure that won't end well, either.
I'm not a big Ben Stiller fan, but this was a great role for him. He had the opportunity to do his usual over-the-top mugging, but it fit right in; his general on-screen persona brought the ne'er do well Larry to entirely believable life. Kim Raver is okay as is most of the rest of the cast. Ricky Gervais deserves special mention, though, as his sputtering portrayal of Mr. McPhee was a real joy to watch.
In a movie like this, the real star is the special effects. While some of the miniatures work was occasionally disappointing (come on, computers do better blue screen work than that and to pretend otherwise is simply to work cheap), the animals including especially the T. rex were just terrific. The story line was simplistic (the film is based on a children's book and the movie is aimed at that same market), but still offered up some entertainment along the way. Nobody will win any awards here, but the movie did just what movies like it are supposed to do: it amused me.
Was Night at the Museum predictable? Yup. Trite? That, too. But it was just the movie I needed when everything outside the theatre was beginning to be overwhelming. It was effortlessly fun even with its more visible flaws, and I enjoyed myself. If you and your kids are in the mood for a little fluff, I'd have to say that Night at the Museum will fill the bill just fine.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Night at the Museum is rated PG for "mild action, language, and brief rude humor." As a whole, I'd say the movie would be fine for kids of age 5 or 6 and up. There's nothing here they haven't heard from their older siblings or schoolmates, and there's a little educational value and a couple of sappy moral lessons thrown in for your viewing pleasure to boot. Mom and Dad won't think Night at the Museum is the best movie ever made, but they likely won't hate it, either, and that's high praise for a lot of kids' movies these days! Like I said, I was amused. You could do quite a bit worse than that.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.