The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro, 2006)
Robert de Niro's The Good Shepherd is indulgently long. Clocking at over two hours and a half, it tries to trace the history of the C. I. A. through a fictional version of James Jesus Angelton, the founder of the agency's counterintelligence operations. Angelton, an intriguing character, was said to have resigned from his post as his spying business has caused him to become overly paranoid even with his personal affairs. The film uses each minute of its lengthy running time to explore the tiniest details of the worldly, political and personal intrigues of espionage work. It's quite fascinating how the story unfolds, how screenwriter Eric Roth intricately meshes the jarring interests of the person and his duties, and how de Niro articulately crafts the film so handsomely.
The film plunges immediately into the depths of facades and double meanings; bespectacled Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) looks like your ordinary suburban American --- he goes to work by riding a bus, a Cuban kid asks if he can break her dollar bill. His normal polish changes when he steps into his office, he exchanges mysteriously phrased words with his co-workers; examines the dollar and matches it among the dubious other dollar bills that are linked to America's Cold War rival. The film is grounded by two events, one historical, and the other personal. The American defeat in Cuba sends a question of loyalty among the ranks of spies of the agency; while Edward receives a mysterious videotape of two blurred lovers and whispered notes of affection. Through several flashbacks, clues and hints are carefully placed, and further blossoms into an intricate web that fittingly lands in near-perfect fashion right before the film's conclusion.
What I found most interesting is how these institutions seem to have been started by the secret society of Skull and Bones in Yale University --- its members proud to have produced an American president, and other ranking officials. Its ungainly effect on American society --- that fact that the cornerstones of these institutions are men who are initiated through secretive rituals, mud wrestling and disrespect. It's a psychology that is ingrained in the American psyche; deals and futures established through parties and fraternity meetings. It's not something that's impossible; it's actually very true.
It's the best acting work of their careers for both Damon and Angelina Jolie. Jolie plays Edward's wife. She literally grows from flirt-ish waif to resolute mother and unsatisfied wife. Although the aging seems unnaturally graceful, the years of worries and domestic burdens are seen through the quiet movements done by Jolie. Damon's performance, however, controls the film. His curved back, uncharismatic facial features, uncharacteristic inconfidence yet boiling genius are adequately shown --- it's something that you didn't think would work, but quite fittingly does, miraculously and thus, delightfully.
De Niro directs with a subdued but obvious finesse; he invokes Coppola in the way he lays down his plot in epic and historical proportions. It's a beautifully shot film --- perhaps too beautifully shot (by very talented cinematographer Robert Richardson). It's polished exteriors, perfected production design (each car feels brand new, each object in perfect condition), its delicate lighting and framing, all these aspects add a literary sense that I thought distracted me from the film's more telling themes. Everytime a perfectly lighted hair falls from a book, or an object is framed conveniently to obey commercial standards, it lends an air of artificiality to the effort.