I respect the years of work, immense care and herculean effort that went into the making of Robert De Niro and Eric Roth‘s The Good Shepherd, and I admire the unity of tone and mood that the film provides. In no way is it muddled or slapdash. But it’s not very stimulating. I think it’s fair to use the world “lulling.” I don’t want to use the word “dull” because it’s always somewhat interesting, and sometimes mildly absorbing. But “somewhat interesting” and $1.75 will get you a bus ticket.
It’s a film with a vision, all right, and made by an above-average director who’s up to something serious and solemn. (You can tell DeNiro isn’t kidding around because of the length, which Universal should have kept at three hours…why not? It’s going to lower people’s eyelids anyway.) But I didn’t believe any of it. I couldn’t believe that being a spook in the late ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s was this confining, this spirit-deflating. Like any work-related obsession, it had to be exciting on this and that level, no? The excitement, the perversity, the intrigue, the killings? But there’s no particular current in what we’re shown. The story just “happens”, and about a half-hour in I started saying to myself, “Uh-oh…”
The Good Shepherd isn’t just a lament/indictment of the hermetic, ingrown culture of the CIA — it’s also a lament/indictment of WASP culture, which everyone knows is about exclusion, efficiency, ownership, clubbiness, Rice Krispies and half- hearted sex. It’s basically about WASP zombies in Burberry trenchcoats and dull haircuts and horn-rimmed glasses, and how if you’re a woman you’ll never want to marry one. (Unless you’re a WASP woman and you’re used to the tedium.)
The parallels between The Good Shepherd and The Godfather, Part II are obvious…but it only makes Francis Coppola‘s film look better. When Joe Pesci shows up…eureka! An Italian mafia guy with a little soul, a little attitude…a break from the WASPs! Viewers are subjected to way too many Skull & Bones ceremonies and get-togethers in this thing, I know that. And what’s with Damon singing in drag in the Yale production of H.M.S. Pinafore and then, later on, Bill Hurt and those other Skull & Bones guys doing a rendition fo “There Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame” in grass skirts?
Why is it that the spooks in the John Le Carre novels — based on reality, as Le Carre was in British intelligence — are so much quirkier and more flavorful and wittier than their American cousins? I loved John Irvin‘s six-hour Tinker, Tailor, Solder Spy and the other one, Smiley’s People, for their absorbing and very detailed stories and the fact that they were truly never dull.
I’m sorry, but as thorough and meticulous as it is in just about every department, The Good Shepherd is not very absorbing to sit through. Strange that a shortfall of this proportion has been written by the great Eric Roth (The Insider, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump, Ali). I think it’s the director’s fault. I mean, it always is.