The Good Shepherd, 2006
On Christmas Eve, just north of the holiday bustle of Union Square, my friends and I stocked up on provisions for the three-hour Good Shepherd. After espresso from down the block and a medium popcorn from concessions, we were trying to decide whether to get a Loews hot dog (four bucks, a little less than I’d anticipated) when my lady checked her watch and decided to head in frankfurter free to catch previews.
All of the trailers before The Good Shepherd were about trust. The Hitcher involves a hitchhiker who tells a couple of dumb kids that people shouldn’t find him so trustworthy, after which carnage ensues. Amazing Grace is another installment in the Trust Whitey tradition of Amistad, about a Parliament man who deigns to bare the onus of helping slaves from his ivory throne. (God forbid Hollywood generate a biopic about Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner – you know, a movie about emancipation starring a black person.) After Don’t Trust Hitchhikers and Trust Whitey was the Who Can You Trust? trailer for Breach, in which the word “trust” must have been uttered at least a dozen times. All this was before The Good Shepherd, a Don’t Trust Anyone movie.
When I console myself for still being an amateur blogger and not a paid critic, I take comfort in the fact that if I were attending press screenings, I’d be missing out on previews. If I’m wrong, don’t tell me – it’s an effective consolation, as I love big screen trailers, and imagine I’ll miss them plenty when I’m indulging in the same kind of lavish mansion and a yacht lifestyle as the likes of J. Hoberman or A.O. Scott.
Months ago, a preview effectively brought us to The Good Shepherd, announcing itself before The Departed. In the past year, other previews for December prestige pictures haven’t been very impressive. When we saw Lady in the Water, a friend and I elbowed each other vigorously, sniggering over the self-important trailer for Children of Men. Sneak peeks at Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima were too steely to get me stoked. Arriving with much less self-inflation and bravado was trailer for The Good Shepherd, which offered an attractive compromise: sit through a slow-paced Oscar bid directed by an actor in exchange for the chance to watch Matt Damon, eternal post-adolescent, carry a three hour movie in which he’d play the title role.
For a few years now, I have fostered a strong affinity for the work of Matt Damon. With passable good looks and eternally nascent adulthood, he embodies an anachronism: charismatic anonymity. He has an everyguy style, an ability to be at home in a big Hollywood movie without seeming entirely part of its glitz and pomp. (As opposed to his sometimes co-star Brad Pitt, who glitzed and pomped up movies before he was the focus of attention.) In Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, Damon plays a rookie thief with an exaggerated need to please. Begging to play with the big guys – namely Clooney and Pitt – came off as a self-aware joke on Damon’s own emerging stardom, a gag he pulled off without self-congratulation. His ingénue as self-parody won me over, and my fondness was one that was shortly thereafter legitimized by profiles and reviews that praised him for being one of Hollywood’s few stars who could still disappear into a role.
He does not disappear altogether into his role in The Good Shepherd, but he does hide behind a pair of glasses that get thicker as he ages, which is the film’s only effort at aging him over two decades. For a movie that takes its time, the three-hour Good Shepherd doesn’t do much to create the feel of time actually passing. My hang-up on this aspect of (non)realism would be petty if I didn’t think that Shepherd would benefit from subtler examination of how slowly Damon’s character manages any personal change or perspective. Shifting around in time, from Damon’s days as a poetry student to his first years as an agent, from an early romance to a bitter marriage, from World War II to the Bay of Pigs, Shepherd casually overlaps eras in a way that never coalesces into any synchronicity. Because nothing comes of it, it reads more like a cute device than a rewarding structure, not something organic but imposed after principal photography. Because Damon never looks younger or older, Shepherd starts to look like a time-travel piece in which his character is traipsing around in the fourth dimension, a sci-fi spy who shows up behind the scenes of the major conflicts of the twentieth century.
Of course, Shepherd is less Back to the Future than it is Bond with the brakes on. As a character piece, it has the potential to excel (or at least intrigue), but it instead settles somewhere in a matrix of historical drama, biopic, and espionage thriller, not really pulling out the stops for any of them, creating a Bermuda triangle in which it gets lost.
It’s always frustrating to watch a movie settle for blandness, especially when there are moments when it seems ready to veer off into something fascinating. A Christmas party attended by Santa Claus himself bears all the marks of a readiness for the road to delusion, and for a few minutes it looks like Good Shepherd is getting into gear. The caroling is shot with an alien’s eye, and the pretense towards middle class respectability that the spy wives peddle with their aggressive singing looks more menacing than quaint. And there in the corner is big Bobby D., the paralyzed general, crooning along reluctantly. At the height of the weirdness, Damon’s lad takes a piss on Santa’s lap, in a refrain of an earlier scene in which Damon gets pissed on (yes, literally!) by a secret society frat brother. The first bond between father and son is in the bathroom, as he sympathetically cleans his boy up with the door open, the stigma of a little urine long since compartmentalized. For a man who’s made a life of keeping secrets, he invites the voyeur at odd moments.
Unfortunately, the madness dissipates rapidly, and even the occasional egregiously simplistic symbolism (floating wedding dress as dashed dreams and bride’s death) only peppers the placid proceedings of the rest of the picture. When Michael Gambon, who plays Damon’s mentor, is beaten and thrown into the water, Damon watches his demise, symbolized by his upended floating cane. This unbearably easy imagery as a substitute for more genuine emotiveness is troubling, as a quick shot of Damon’s countenance of inscrutability could have done the job. Still, the moment is silly enough to be enjoyable, and I was hoping that Shepherd was careening towards exaggerated symbology (a la Michael Bay), but it settled back into its drab fascination with its own exposition, saving the scene from something fun and reducing it to a mere plot point.
The Good Shepherd
Written by Eric Roth
Directed by Robert De Niro