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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?


SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Good Shepherd

The good idea: Matt Damon plays a counter-intelligence administrator during the events leading to the formation of the CIA.

What worked: The life within U.S. covert operations from pre World War II through the Bay of Pigs is richly depicted through Damon's stoic portrayal of Edward Wilson. The paranoia and anxiety are tangible.

What didn't work: Much of the film is made up of flashbacks of Wilson's life: the suicide of his father at a young age, his induction into Yale's secret society Skull and Bones, his recruitment into counter-intelligence work and his loveless marriage to Clover (played by Angelina Jolie). Unfortunately, for all their efforts and attention to detail, these flashback scenes serve as gloriously shot exposition revealing not much more than the emotional complexity of Wilson's life.

There is precious little story. A U.S. military operation in Cuba is severely compromised by a leak within the intelligence community. An anonymous package is slipped under Wilson's door with grainy, underexposed photographs of a couple having sex and a sound recording of their pillow talk indicating that this tryst was the leak.

Wilson turns in the package for forensic evaluation and enough clues are discovered to reveal where this tryst took place. Upon traveling to the location, Wilson discovers the leak is his own son and the woman who passed on the information is his son's fiancee.

Eric Roth's story structure is daring. We start the film with Wilson's receipt of the package. All the flashbacks occur during the time it takes the forensics team to evaluate the photographs and to demux the various sound elements.

Wilson's revelation that the leak is his son is the second act break. In essence, most of the first two acts are flashbacks of events prior to the discovery of the leak. From his Soviet counterpart Ulysses, Wilson is presented with the choice embodied in the movie's theme: Would you protect your country or your son?

What the film gains by this structure is a true mystery. By showing Wilson's past, we are presented with a gallery of credible suspects in this cloak and dagger. Everyone occupies an area somewhere between light and dark. Sometimes it's easier to trust your enemy than your friends because you know he's your enemy but no matter what, you are always looking over your shoulder.

Without this structure, The Good Shepherd would be an ordinary whodunit with some vintage CSI techniques. However, the movie has a far greater emotional resonance because it takes great pains to show how Wilson's father's weaknesses passed down to him and how he subsequently passed them down to his son.

Is there anything heroic in Wilson's choice to assassinate his son's fiancee? Ultimately, Wilson is protecting himself more than either his son or his country. That Wilson ordered the assassination is my surmise: the film leaves the point ambiguous if Wilson or Ulysses ordered it but it would be an utterly pointless exercise if it weren't Wilson's decision.

Ultimately, there is not enough story to sustain the nearly three hours it takes for The Good Shepherd to play out. Even though the flashbacks depict many different events from Wilson's past, they repeat the same theme over and over again: choices are difficult when you don't know who you can trust. Forty five fewer minutes of this theme and The Good Shepherd could have been an excellent film.

1 Comments:

Blogger Tim A. said...

Issac!

Hope you're good. Next time, but spoiler warnings in your posts! I really dug the film. Personally, I think Damon's character was fine with the killing of the fiancee cuz he didn't want to see his son repeat the same mistakes he made. As you recall, he married Jolie cuz she got pregnant, and his son was marrying the woman cuz he thought he was in love, but also cuz the woman was pregnant. I actually enjoyed the structure. No, it's not plot heavy at all. Instead, it's a wonderful character study about trust and loyalty. And I felt the device of using the photo and tape breakdown in the present created a ticking clock that made all the stuff in the past not seem so ponderous. And William Hurt was fabulous!

January 19, 2007 11:30 AM  

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