Things Robert De Niro knows about directing he did not learn from all his work with Martin Scorsese:
How to be quiet.
How to keep his actors still.
How to fill up a scene with images rather than activity. In The Good Shepherd, De Niro lets us look at a shot, stare deep into it, allows us to take our time and study it. Scorsese tends to force us to keep our eyes moving about constantly. Something is always in frenetic motion, usually his actors' mouths.
Exhibit A: In The Good Shepherd, De Niro has cast Joe Pesci as a mobster and Pesci, for once in his career, plays somebody who resembles an actual human being.
Much of this difference in directing style is due to tone and theme. Scorsese's movies are usually about people whose emotions get out of control, whose thoughts are all over the place. The characters in The Good Shepherd have stifled their emotions. They don't think anymore either. They calculate.
In The Departed Matt Damon played a man without a soul. In The Good Shepherd he plays a man whose soul has withdrawn to one side. It's there, watching him, horrified at what's happening. If it had a voice, it would scream. We see it in Damon's eyes. Whatever or whomever he's looking at, his gaze is always a fraction off to one side. He seems to be watching himself watch himself, as if he can see himself reflected inside the lenses of his glasses.
I wonder if the glasses Damon wears are a tribute to Alec Guinness's George Smiley. They are a joke and a disguise, that's for sure. The joke is that they make Damon look like Clark Kent and at the back of our mind we can't help expecting him to whip them off at some point and reveal the real hero within, even though we know there is increasingly less and less inside him that resembles a hero. But The Good Shepherd does seem to owe a lot to John Le Carre's spy novels in which the spy game is not a romantic adventure starring James Bond types; it is soul-deadening work for clerks who have little heart to put into to begin with and who learn to ignore, even smother, what little they have. And the 15 year battle of wills between Matt Damon's Edward Wilson and the Russian spymaster Ulysses definitely mirrors Smiley's decades' long contest with Karla. The difference between Wilson and George Smiley is that by the time Smiley comes to the fore in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy he has developed a kind of nostalgic loyalty to his former self, the one-time idealist and romantic who fought the good fight and wooed and won the Lady Ann. He does some things for that former self as if repaying a debt. This doesn't bring his heart roaring back to life, but it makes him act as if he still had one from time to time. Wilson's character may have reached that point by the end of the movie but most of the film is devoted to observing the flame within him flicker and die.
If anyone wants to make a new biopic about President Kennedy they can do worse than cast Matt Damon as JFK. De Niro and Damon both seem to be aware of the resemblance and use it to suggest idealism and romanticism carrying the country away. Payoff at the end---Damon in the Smithsonian with a Mercury capsule suspended behind him---may be too subtle. Like I said, De Niro likes to let images tell the story, make us look into the background of a shot. Something to be said though for dialog and action at least to bring things to a conclusion. Images, being static, have no conclusions. This movie could use a few more of those conclusions.
Blood Diamond, The Departed, and The Good Shepherd make an interesting triptych for students of acting. Leo to Leo and Matt to Matt: A Study of Leading Men Playing Heroes as Character Types.
Angelina Jolie is a good actress when she takes a part that requires her to act rather than pose and posture. She is not the prettiest or the sexiest actress in the movie. Tammy Blanchard is. That fact is due to Jolie's being such a good actress. Jolie's character, Clover, is a trophy and knows herself to be a trophy. The reason she happens to look like a goddess is purely practical. Who'd want a trophy that wasn't beautiful? Jolie plays Clover as a trophy come to life, aware of her beauty as a practical fact about herself, willing to use it when necessary, but otherwise indifferent to it except as it requires admiration to be worth anything. Trophies only have meaning if the winner who takes possession of them cares about them. A living trophy that was not constantly admired wouldn't know itself to be a trophy. It wouldn't be able to tell itself from any other knick-knack around the house. Jolie plays Clover as if she can see herself visibly tarnishing and gathering dust, feel herself fading into the background as Damon grows increasingly indifferent to her. Without losing her outward, trophy-like stillness she manages to show Clover on an emotional see-saw, always going up and down between panic and petulant depression.
When Damon reveals that he has never loved her, never valued her as a trophy, she ages twenty years overnight.
I wish De Niro had spent a little more time showing how Clover's disdain for the Skull and Bones' All boys together clubbishness and later for the CIA's clannishness are not signs of her rebel spirit, only of her jealousy. Clover represents and stands for a different kind of conformity.
Two spheres are competing for total possession of Damon/Wilson. Both represent the same system of values---conformity, unquestioning loyalty, total denial of self, service to a stated Ideal---Family, Patriotism---that is really a mask for Money as the source of all that's good.
The world of home, love, and family that Clover thinks she represents is really just the material representation of wealth and privilege; the job her husband does, which she sees as taking him away from home, love, and family, defends that wealth and privilege. This is all there thematically and even symbolically in The Good Shepherd. I just could have used a scene or two dramatizing it.
I also wish De Niro had spent a little more time showing how the Cold War had eroded John Turturro's character's soul. We see him in World War II as a wiseguy GI type, our favorite kind of American soldier from the movies, us incarnate---cyncial, brash, anti-authoritarian, but tough, proud, taking no nonsense, knowing what's right and what's wrong instinctively and instinctively always coming down on the side of right. Then all of a sudden he's a cold-hearted, merciless, too efficient functionary of the CIA, a servant of the establishment instead of a true patriot. One scene would have done it. De Niro is satisfied with one look in Turturro's eyes
It's one hell of a look though.
A look full of the horrified shock of recognition.
Physically Turturro is a dream come true for an artistic designer whose job is to recreate the look of the 1950s for a movie. He just looks like he's been cut and pasted from a photo in a contemporary issue of LIFE magazine. See him also in Quiz Show. Same effect.
Good to see William Hurt at work again. Ditto Keir Dullea. Twenty years ago, who'd have thought Alec Baldwin would one day be taking on the type of roles then going to Charles Durning? Or---see Running With Scissors---Dabney Coleman?
Already suggested The Good Shepherd is an American Smiley's People. It can also be seen as a WASP Godfather. (Maybe De Niro learned more about directing from Coppola than from Scorsese.) Which would explain why it feels unfinished. Like The Godfather it wants and needs a sequel. Unlike The Godfather, though, it doesn't stand on its own. It's two hours and forty-eight minutes of prologue. We start with the Bay of Pigs and end there. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's Assassination, Vietnam, Watergate are all ahead of us.
By the way, I've never kept up on the conspiracy theories. Apparently on his deathbed Howard Hunt fingered LBJ as the mastermind behind the murder of JFK. I think his mind was wandering. He was mixing up his spy novels with reality. But as anyone taken a serious look at the role the Cuban exile community might have played? If anyone had a motive it would have been the people who blamed Kennedy for leaving their relatives to be slaughtered on the beach.
Perhaps The Good Shepherd Part II will deal with that.
On topic: Jon Swift speculates on Who Killed Howard Hunt?
The Good Shepherd. Directed by Robert De Niro. Screenplay by Eric Roth. Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Keir Dullea, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, and Robert De Niro. Universal. 2006.