13 years after directing A Bronx Tale (featuring the great line, “Now you’s can’t leave.”), Robert De Niro returned to the chair with The Good Shepherd, a slick spy film that’s actually much more about crumbling familial relationships than it is the Bay of Pigs. Random side note: apparently a sequel is in the works.
There’s a lot of plot in The Good Shepherd, and what’s particularly noteworthy is the first 20 minutes, which fly by at such a rapid pace, include a large amount of necessary information, jump around timelines, and are still perfectly understandable. De Niro leans heavily, at times, on our knowledge of basic American history (maybe a mistake?) and refuses to really divulge anything beyond the necessities. This intro, and a lot of the remainder of the film, feature exposition in the form of text-date-indicators, slanted eye-looks, and a little bit of newsreel footage.
An example of how The Good Shepherd divulges its information: Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), career CIA man, is on a bus. A child hands him a dollar bill and asks for change. Wilson looks beyond the child to the mother. Their eyes meet. Cut to Wilson in his superior’s office. This is Phillip Allen (William Hurt). Allen takes the dollar bill. Cut to a close-up as his finger traces the serial number on the bill to a list of agents. The whole sequence is made up of minimal dialogue (mostly the kid asking for change). It relies on glances and cuts. At the end of it, we’re not entirely sure what the serial number means, or who it indicates, or how important it is to the overall narrative. But what’s important is that we are left with a paranoid-stricken branch of the CIA and from this outset we understand their ways and means: no innocent-appearing civilian is innocent, suspicion reigns, things move fast.
Wilson is married to Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie in perhaps her best role). Amidst American involvement in WWII, The Bay of Pigs, The Cold War, and whole slew of other “incidents” Wilson’s loyalties to country and family are tested. It’s also a very strong performance from Damon who rarely smiles in the entire picture.
Through flashbacks and flash-forwards the film ultimately spans nearly 50 years. Jolie is clearly aged throughout. Her hair whitens. Wrinkles form around her eyes. She looks more gaunt (is that possible?). What’s odd is that Damon is not. He stays relatively the same in his physical appearance. It’s a strange choice. I guess we could discern some underlying meaning: his actions are ironically wearing on her more than on him. Or maybe, his job is keeping him youthful. Who knows? I think it’s a mistake. Even if we rely on either of these explanations (I’d love to hear a better one) both are disproved in the end when the true nature of Wilson’s involvement with his job is revealed.
Here’s a pretty big SPOILER:
There’s a mystery in the film that runs concurrent with Wilson’s governmental exploits. He has received a strange package that contains grainy, black and white film of two people in bed: a man and a woman. She whispers something to him. Wilson takes the film to his lab and gradually, the lab finds clues (think of the team in Sneakers, but with more equipment, or Harry Caul in The Conversation but not as crazy) that determine the location. These sequences are really fun and probably a writer’s dream: total freedom to create different hints that, in the end, can really add up to any location. They isolate church bells, find an object reflected in a mirror, ascertain the make and model of a ceiling fan and note the types of trees present through the window.
It’s discovered that the man in question is Wilson’s son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) and that the woman is an operative attempting to turn him, but who ultimately double-crosses her employers, pronouncing her love for the boy. In an elaborate series of meetings with Russians, another dollar-bill-foreshadow, and a scene with the inimitable Joe Pesci, it comes out that Edward Jr. and the woman are to be married.
De Niro goes into a crosscut. Edward Jr, Sr, and Margaret are in a hotel room before going to the church. The bride, Miriam (Liya Kebede) is put on a plane after saying goodbye to her parents. De Niro uses the crosscut for one of its most useful purposes: to predict. Ultimately it’s not just the crosscut, but also an aural cue.
When crosscutting we’re usually implying that things are occurring at the same time. But a truly effective crosscut says more. It implies a meeting – often a collision. Think of the scene in Strangers on a Train when when Robert Walker is on his way to Farley Granger’s tennis match. The crosscut predicts the violence to come far more accurately than two separate, and wholly-contained scenes with the two of them would be capable of. This collision, this air of inevitability is, of course, influenced by the surrounding context and predominant mood to that point, so suffice it to say that a loud comedy with a crosscut sandwiched in the middle is all of a sudden going to turn into a suspense film.
So we’ve got this crosscut going. But what makes this sequence truly great is the aural cue that I mentioned before. Edward Jr. goes to get champagne. In a 3-shot he struggles with the cork and then pops it open. The pop is loud (intentionally exaggerated) and on the pop, though we cut to the plane a few whole seconds after it, we fully understand that his fiance is about to die. It substitutes for the violent audio of a gunshot, but more than that, it’s the only loud moment in an otherwise quiet sequence. It calls attention to itself so much that, because it’s placed in the crosscut, it takes on a new meaning.