Robert de Niro's second film (as director), The Good Shepherd is still in British cinema's, even as it gets an HD-DVD release State-side. Unfortunately it's one of those nasty, rather expensive combo-releases where the standard DVD, but Region 1 only, features on the reverse side. Fortunately the high definition side, unlike the rival Blu-Ray format, is region free and with Universal being the only film company that are exclusive to HD-DVD, long-suffering HD-DVD fans at last have something to feel good about with this 'exclusive' release, albeit at the rather inflated 'combo' import price.
Whether sales of this title will be strong remains to be seen. Recent negative reviews for the theatrical release are still likely to be fresh in potential purchasers minds. The film is directed by a man that many critics have (rather foolishly!) called 'this generation's finest actor', so why did so few critics appear to like the film? With a cast list to die for this should surely count as a 'must see'?
The Good Shepherd tells the story of the CIA, as seen through the eyes of Edwin Wilson (Matt Damon) over a period of more than twenty years. We follow Wilson's induction into the mysterious 'Skull and Bones' secret society, his work in England during the War for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, the precursor to the CIA), the formation of the CIA itself and conclude with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion that was intended to topple Fidel Castro in Cuba.
The Cuban failure highlights the fact that there appears to be a mole inside Wilson's department, and this sub-plot forms the main backbone of the film. Wilson struggles to find the mole and prove that he is not the guilty party, while also trying to ascertain the meaning of a blurry video-tape sent to him by his Russian counterpart 'Ulysses' that may or may not have some bearing on the matter.
There's a lot to cover, and based on the running time of 2 hours 40 minutes, the film appears to have been allowed the time it needs. The film is a complicated one to tell since it involves numerous tales of treachery, double-crossing and double-double-crossing. As if that weren't complex enough there's the added complication of continually shifting timelines as the story in told in non-linear fashion.
There are two separate, and oft-times conflicting, plot-lines here: the history of the birth of the CIA, as told through Wilson's personal history and involvement with the organisation; and the story of the mole investigation which takes place alongside his attempts to discover the meaning of the video-tape. With sub-plots mashed up and timelines constantly shifting as the film jumps from one story strand to another, things get very confusing very quickly. A missed whispered sentence can mean the difference between having a clear understanding of the intricate, interwoven plot versus being totally flummoxed as to what is really happening and how one event relates to another. I suspect that your enjoyment or dislike of the film will rest entirely on your ability or inability to keep up and pay attention to every line spoken throughout the constantly twisting timelines and sub-plots. I guess it's not hard to see why so many critics dismissed the film as 'over-long' or 'poorly directed'.
I think those critics pointing the finger of blame at De Niro have missed the point - the fault lies not with the direction (which is excellent), but partly with the rather-convoluted script - which, I admit, I'd find hard to put together any other way - and mainly with the fact that the central figure of Wilson, used to tell the tale, is not anyone the audience can readily identify with. Wilson is on screen throughout almost the entire running time of the film, and although his portrayal represents an incredible performance on the part of Matt Damon, it's just not a performance that the audience are likely to empathise with.
This is a complex tale, even without all its time jumps. At the risk of sounding condescending, the problem is there are just too many different characters and intrigues going on for the average viewer to be able to keep up, even given the deft performances and direction used here. Since this is a spy story told mostly about men who sit behind desks and have little-to-no personal lives, it's not hard not to see why modern audiences, more used to endless eye candy or touchy-feely rom-coms, might find the film somewhat hard to digest!
The attempt to breathe life into the script by showing so much of Wilson's private life should have worked, but fails here because he is such a buttoned-down caricature of a man that his personal life just isn't that interesting. This is in spite of the fact that it includes suicide, an indiscrete affair, resentful family members and ultimate treachery. Clearly there's something wrong when even having a wife as beautiful as Angeline Jolie can't make Wilson appear more interesting. He may make a great CIA employee, but as a human being he is really, really boring. And that doesn't make for a gripping or involving film experience.
That beind said, I thought the film was beautifully executed. Direction and cinematography are excellent - there's a strong sense of style and consistency, without the direction ever being too showy or distracting. The score from Bruce Fowler and Marcelo Zarvos heightens the mood and subtlety of the piece, instead of distracting from it. And the performances are uniformly excellent.
The cast are a film-maker's dream. The big name leads of Matt Damon and Angeline Jolie are both excellent, but the real surprise is the number of big-hitters that impress even when given just minor roles. William Hurt, Michael Gambon, John Sessions, Billy Crudup and John Turturro all deliver note-perfect performances. Ironically enough it's only the director's own performance, and perhaps that of Alec Baldwin too, which hit a slightly sour note. Both De Niro and Baldwin come across as playing roles we've seen them play too many times before. Reading the cast list there are even a couple of strong actors I failed to spot (Timothy Hutton and Joe Pesci), so I guess a second viewing might be necessary. A special mention for two actors I've not seen before who deliver incredible performances. Oleg Stefan is delightfully charming but creepy as the Russian operative 'Ulysees'; and Tammy Blanchard playing Wilson's first girlfriend - a deaf beauty called Laura - lights up the screen every time she appears.
The film is shot mainly using cold blues, greens and greys that help enhance the mood of the piece, without resorting to the sort of de-saturated look that has annoyed me on so many other recent releases. The transfer to HD-DVD is good, without being stunning enough to highlight as reference quality. The picture is often soft and, if I'm honest, there's little here that impresses over and above what would be available on the best standard DVD release (assuming the title gets a high quality standard Region 2 DVD release later this year).
Extra's are a mixture of the good and the bad. 'The good' is sixteen minutes of deleted scenes that are presented in fully finished form ie high-definition, with music and effects all up to the standard of the main feature. They add depth to some of the characters and sub-plots that have had to be rushed through in order to get the running time of the main feature down to 2 hours and 40 minutes. 'The bad' is the U-Control feature. This probably sounds treacherous coming from a supporter of the 'rival' to the Blu-Ray format, given how 'picture in picture' is proving to be a silver bullet in HD-DVDs claims for superiority (more on this in my personal blog 'Wednesday Wibble' next week), but one has to ask 'What on earth were Universal thinking?' in using this feature on this release.
U-Control is a feature that allows you to view a subsidiary 'feature' using a 'picture in picture' feature which, at the moment, Blu-Ray doesn't support. The idea is that when you switch the feature on an icon pops up whenever there is something of interest you might want to watch while the main film is still playing. In the case of The Good Shepherd what this means is that the usual Making of featurette is missing. Or rather it's spread across the whole duration of the film in a ridiculous postage-stamp sized window that can only be watched while the main feature is playing. If you want to hear Robert de Niro or any of the other film-makers talking about the film it's all here, but you have to spend two hours 40 minutes waiting for various bits of it to pop up at reduced size. How is this any kind of advantage over standard DVD? I know we live in a world dominated by the decisions of an MTV-raised generation that has the attention span of a newt, but this is a gimmick too far. It makes an interesting feature - a behind the scenes 'Making of' - absolutely useless. The only consolation the viewer has is that the standard DVD purchaser doesn't get this 'HD-DVD -exclusive' featurette at all.
The Good Shepherd was a film I enjoyed, albeit a fundamentally flawed film that will not be to everyone's taste. It's certainly worth a rental if you can spare the time, and possibly a purchase if you need to revisit it to catch the subtleties you are likely to miss on a single viewing.