Cinema Signal:

The Old Boys:
The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA
by Burton Hersh
. "The Good Shepherd"

A huge cast (what actor wouldn't want to be directed by Robert De Niro on his pet project?), a bloated running time (2 hours 40 minutes), and a hero who tends not to speak any more than he must... and what do you get? I've seen glaciers with a faster pace and better focused on its intrigue.

Well, all right, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But the tensions and excitement that counter-intelligence merely implies is realized here only in fits and starts, while scenes that can only be described as padding blankets the interest level to a state of suffocation. Boy, would I like to apply the scissors on this one for a little post-post editing without Mr. De Niro breathing down my back.

Having said all that, let me assure you that there is much to admire here, as well, not the least of which is the intent to create a story that revolves around the John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs disaster and the leak from somewhere within the intelligence community that ensured its failure. By the time the movie gets into the solution of the mystery it's the third act and the dramatic issues become more focused.

De Niro's story (written by Eric Roth, "Munich") is an imagined genesis of the CIA as an outgrowth of intelligence and tactical failures that made high level government officials feel the need for a more specialized and shadowy agency than the FBI in order to deal with a devious and slippery inernational enemy.

This evolution in methods and organization of American spycraft is told through the life and career of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) who, upon graduation from Yale, is invited into the secret society Skull and Bones, an elite brotherhood of future and current world leaders where he's quickly recognized for his unmarred reputation and dedication to American values. Through this connection to Washington power brokers, he's recruited into the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), an ad-hoc intelligence and code-breaking agency formed during World War II and now the closest thing to a spy operation.

Wilson's cool, handsome demeanor and steely, laconic nature attracts Clover (Angelina Jolie), a rather willful daughter of one of his fellow "Bonesmen." She wastes no time getting him in bed and virtually entrapping him into marriage with a pregnancy. His work will keep him from home for years though his love for his son increases along with a growing incompatibility with his wife and a simultaneous laison with another woman whom he grows to love.

Highly valued by his associates, a prized list which now includes the highly influential Bill Sullivan (De Niro), Wilson is chosen to head a new, expanded agency, the CIA, which puts him in a position to evaluate Russian spies who come to America ostensibly to escape the KGB but who may be double agents. Wilson's judgement in such matters may be something less than perfect, but it is relied upon without mercy.

A package is left behind his door, turning out to be a brief video that has the signs of being a vital clue to the identity of the person who leaked American invasion plans on Cuba. A man and woman in bed. Garbled sound track with a possibly incriminating post-coital conversation. Requiring study of every grain of detail, the analysis takes months, but the visual and audio clues it reveals pays off with the scene's location and the identity of the betrayer, a revelation that makes Wilson deal with a level of emotional pain and professional sacrifice he's never faced before.

Damon's requirement to portray such a reserved, uncompromising character produces the effect of respectful interest, but at arms length. We don't quite bond with this man in the early going. But as time wears on, and the emotional branches of his vascular system indicate that there's a heart beating beneath the surface, he develops a sympathetic attachment that justifies the centrality of his role. Jolie uses a good part of her genetic flirtatiousness and physical allure to make Clover both convincing and tragic. A misguided woman whose flaws don't amount to anything very unique, but at least no evil villainy.

The difficulty I have with the main casting is over Eddie Redmayne in the role of grown up Edward Wilson Jr., Damon's son. I found this young actor neither attractive nor comfortable as an actor. What was De Niro thinking with this choice?

Fascinating choices, however, pepper the production in the primary cast and in a few cameos, which includes: William Hurt, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Timothy Hutton, Keir Dullea, Jason Patric and Michael Gambon. Vladislav Kozlov played the Russian KGB agent.

Production values are all pro, led by impeccable lensing by Robert Richardson. Bruce Fowler and Marcelo Zarvos provided the excellent score.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  



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