The Cold War Bore

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 25, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Cold War Bore


Byline: JASON SOLOMONS

FILMS OF THE WEEK Jason Solomons The Good Shepherd Director: Robert De Niro Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, William Hurt Certificate: 15 Time: 2hrs 47mins uUuUuUuUuU Letters From Iwo Jima Director: Clint Eastwood Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazanuri Ninomiya Certificate: 15 Time: 2hrs 21mins uUuUuUuUuU School For Scoundrels Director: Todd Phillips Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder Certificate: 12A Time: 1hr 40mins uUuUuUuUuU The Number 23 Director: Joel Schumacher Starring: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston Certificate: 15 Time: 1hr 38mins uUuUuUuUuU

Robert De Niro's first film a director was A Bronx Tale, an intimate portrayal of Italian-American street life. It felt like the sort personal project typical an actor feeling his way behind the camera. However, it has taken 14 years for De Niro to sit in the director's chair again, and he has clearly widened his ambitions in the interim.

The long-awaited result is The Good Shepherd, a film that ranges across decades and continents,tracing the life secret agent Edward Wilson - loosely based on real spycatcher James Angleton - and the beginnings of the CIA, an organisation that emerges from the ashes of the Second World War to create the frostiness of the Cold War.

Matt Damon plays Wilson, a tightlipped, privileged young man who, while a literature student at Yale, inducted into the university's masoniclike Skull And Bones society, which, turns out, is a breeding ground for America's ruling elite.

Wilson's stiff idealism and unswerving patriotism see him stationed in London during the Blitz and then encouraged by his superiors to invent his own brand of counterintelligence during the Cold War, so his life becomes a game global chess with his Russian counterpart, Ulysses.

Wilson's private life suffers at the hands of his dedication to secrecy.

His high society wife Clover, played by Angelina Jolie, and young son - called, of course,Edward Jnr - are increasingly excluded, particularly as tensions build around the Cuban crisis.

This is a film about men in hats, horn-rimmed glasses and macs. People talk in spy phrases, such as: 'There's stranger in the house' and 'The Cardinal is interested'. It's a story about men who sacrifice their lives - ostensibly for their country, but really for power.

Acting in all those epic criminal sagas, from The Godfather to Goodfellas, has clearly influenced De Niro the director and given him the taste for a bigger canvas. It's interesting to note that Francis Ford Coppola acts as executive producer here and that the world of spies functions on much the same codified and shady level as the criminal world De Niro and Coppola have mythologised on screen. Y

THECOLD Yet this is part of the problem with The Good Shepherd.

You can't tell if De Niro is in thrall to the world of espionage or critical of it. There's little humour to lighten the shades of grey here and the film lacks a cohesive sense of style.

Instead,De Niro gives us the occasional flourish - such as when archive blackand-white footage melts into colour - and his inexperience as a director begins to show the longer the film goes on.The climax,while spectacular,seems entirely out of place with the rest of the film.

Perhaps De Niro has called in too many favours. The large cast is actually distracting and few manage to stand out in the crowd: William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Alec Baldwin and Michael Gambon contribute little more than cameos.

John Turturro's increasingly haggard face is the only memorable one.

The worst victim is Jolie, whose role is underwritten, resulting in her wildly overacting whenever she gets a chance.

In a way, the film lacks the ethnic flavour of a family saga. The characters are all classic WASPs - 'no Jews, no negroes' is the rule - and there's a telling cameo from Joe Pesci, playing a Mafia contact, who asks Wilson what special qualities the 'whites' actually have. …

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