“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

 

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

With the exception of a few, many of Martin Scorsese’s films have been set in the City of New York – whether in the past or present. One of those films is his 2002 Oscar nominated film, “THE GANGS OF NEW YORK”

Loosely based upon Herbert Ashbury’s 1927 non-fiction book, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” had the distinction of being a crime drama about a gang war . . . set during the first half of the U.S. Civil War. Before I continue, I should add that the film was not only based upon Ashbury’s book, but also on the life and death of a street gang leader named William Poole.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” began in 1846, when two street gangs – the Protestant”Nativists” led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting; and the “Dead Rabbits”, an Irish immigrant gang led by “Priest” Vallon; meet somewhere in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan for a fight. Near the end of a vicious street brawl, Cutting kills Vallon. A close friend of Vallon hides his young son inside an orphanage on Blackwell’s Island. Sixteen years pass and Vallon’s son, who has renamed himself Amsterdam, returns to the Five Points neighborhood to seek revenge against “Bill the Butcher”, who now rules the neighborhood. Against the back drop of the early years of the Civil War, Amsterdam maneuvers himself into Cutting’s confidence, as he waits for the right moment to strike and get his revenge against the man who killed his father.

There are aspects of “GANGS OF NEW YORK” that I either liked or found impressive. Considering that Scorsese shot the film at the Cinecittà Studios and the Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York; I must admit that I found Dante Ferretti’s production designs serving for Manhattan rather impressive. Impressive, but not exactly accurate or near accurate. The movie looked as if it had been shot on a sound stage. But I must say that I admired how the designs conveyed Scorsese’s own vision of Manhattan 1862-63. I also noticed that the color tones utilized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus reminded me of the three-strip Technicolor process from the early-to-mid 1930s. Rather odd for a period movie set during the U.S. Civil War. However, thanks to Ferretti’s designs and Michael Ballhaus’ very colorful photography, the movie’s vision of 1860s Manhattan had a theatrical style to it – especially in the Five Points scenes. I did not love it, but I found it interesting.

I could probably say the same about Sandy Powell’s costume designs. They struck me as an extreme version of 1860s fashion, especially in regard to color and fabrics, as shown in the image below:

And there was something about the movie’s costume designs for men that I found slightly confusing. Mind you, I am not much of an expert on 19th century fashion for men. But for some reason, I found myself wondering if the costumes designed for the male cast were for a movie set in the 1840s, instead of the 1860s, as shown below:

But if I must be honest with myself, I did not like “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. Not one bit. The movie proved to be a major disappointment. One of the main problems I had with this film was that Scorsese; along with screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan; took what should have been a character-driven period crime drama and transformed it into something nearly unwieldy. When you think about it, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was basically a fictionalized account of a feud between American-born William Poole and an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey, the former leader of the real “Dead Rabbits” gang. And their feud had played out in the early-to-mid 1850s. Instead, Scorsese and the screenwriters shifted the movie’s setting to the early years of the Civil War and ended the narrative with the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 in some attempt to transform what could have been a more intimate period drama into this gargantuan historical epic. I found this perplexing, considering that the Civil War had little to do with the film’s main narrative. It also did not help that the film’s narrative struck me as a bit choppy, thanks to Scorsese being forced to delete a good deal of the film at the behest of the producers.

I did not have a problem with the conflict/relationship between Bill Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon. I thought Scorsese made an interesting choice by having Amsterdam ingratiate himself into Cutting’s inner circle . . . and keeping his true identity a secret. This paid off when Amsterdam saved Cutting from an assassinating attempt, leading the latter to assume the position of the younger man’s mentor. At first, I could not understand why Scorsese had included a romantic interest for Amsterdam in the form of a grifter/pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. In the end, she proved to be a catalyst that led to Amsterdam and Cutting’s eventual conflict near the end of the film. One of the few people who knew Amsterdam’s true identity was an old childhood acquaintance named Johnny Sirocco, who became infatuated over Jenny. When he became aware of Amsterdam’s romance with Jenny, Johnny ratted out his friend’s identity to Cutting.

But what followed struck me as . . . confusing. On the 17th anniversary of his father’s death, Amsterdam tried to kill Cutting and failed. Instead of killing the younger man in retaliation, Cutting merely wounded Amsterdam, branded the latter’s cheek and declared him an outcast in the Five Points neighborhood. An outcast? That was it? I found it hard to believe that a violent and vindictive man like Bill “the Butcher” Cutting would refrain from killing someone who tried to kill him. Perhaps this scenario could have worked if Cutter had tried to kill Amsterdam and fail, allowing the latter to make his escape. Or not. But I found Scorsese’s scenario with Amsterdam being banished from Cutting’s circle and the Five Points neighborhood to be something of a joke.

As for the movie’s performances . . . for me they seemed to range from decent to below average. For a movie that featured some of my favorite actors and actresses, I was surprised that not one performance really impressed me. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. Mind you, Day-Lewis had one or two scenes that impressed – especially one that involved a conversation between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, inside a brothel. Otherwise, I felt that the actor was chewing the scenery just a bit too much for my tastes. Leonardo Di Caprio, on the other hand, was crucified by critics and moviegoers for his portrayal of the revenge seeking Amsterdam Vallon. Aside from his questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with Di Caprio’s performance. I simply did not find his character very interesting. Just another kid seeking revenge for the death of his father. What made this desire for revenge ridiculous to me is that Bill the Butcher had killed “Priest” Vallon in a fair fight. Not many critics were that impressed by Cameron Diaz’s performance. Aside from her questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with the actress. I had a bigger problem with her character, Jenny Everdeane. To put it quite frankly, aside from her role serving as a catalyst to Cutting’s discovery of Amsterdam’s true identity, I found Jenny’s role in this movie rather irrelevant.

As for the other members of the cast . . . I found their performances solid, but not particularly noteworthy. I thought Henry Thomas gave a decent performance as the lovelorn and vindictive Johnny Sirocco. The movie featured Jim Broadbent, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Cara Seymour and Michael Byrne portraying true-life characters like William “Boss” Tweed, P.T. Barnum, Hell Cat Maggie and Horace Greeley. They gave competent performances, but I did not find them particularly memorable. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet and Alec McCowen. But honestly, I could not think of a performance that I found memorable.

My real problem with “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was Scorsese’s handling of the movie’s historical background. Quite frankly, I thought it was appalling. I am not referring to the film’s visual re-creation of early 1860s Manhattan. I am referring to how Scorsese utilized the movie’s mid-19th century historical background for the film. Earlier, I had pointed out that the Civil War setting for “GANGS OF NEW YORK” barely had any impact upon the movie’s narrative. I think it may have been a bit in error. Scorsese and the screenwriters did utilize the Civil War setting, but in a very poor manner.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” should never have been set during the U.S. Civil War. It was a big mistake on Scorsese’s part. Day-Lewis’ character is based upon someone who was killed in 1855, six years before the war’s outbreak. Scorsese should have considered setting the movie during the late antebellum period, for his handling of the Civil War politics in the movie struck me as very questionable. From Scorsese’s point of view in this film, the Union is basically a militaristic entity bent upon not only oppressing the Confederacy, but also its citizens in the North – including immigrants and African-Americans. This view was overtly manifested in two scenes – the U.S. Naval bombing of the Five Points neighborhood during the Draft Riots . . . something that never happened; and a poster featuring the images of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that appeared in the movie:

What made this poster even more ridiculous is that the image of Frederick Douglass was anachronistic. Douglass was roughly around 44 to 45 years old during the movie’s time period. He looked at least 15 to 20 years older in the poster.

In “GANGS OF NEW YORK”, Americans of Anglo descent like Bill the Butcher were the real bigots of 1860s Manhattan. Not only did they hate immigrants, especially Irish-born immigrants, but also black Americans. I am not claiming that all 19th century Anglo-Americans tolerated blacks and immigrants. Trust me, they did not. But did Scorsese actually expected moviegoers to believe that most of the Irish immigrants were more tolerant of African-Americans than the Anglos? Apparently, he did. He actually portrayed one character, an African-American named Jimmy Spoils, as one of Amsterdam’s close friends and a member of the latter’s newly reformed “Dead Rabbits” gang. Honestly? It was bad enough that Scorsese’s portrayal of Jimmy Spoils was so damn limited. I cannot recall a well-rounded black character in any of his movies. Not one.

Scorsese and his screenwriters made the situation worse by portraying the Irish immigrants as generally more tolerant toward blacks than the Anglos. In fact, the only Irish-born or characters of Irish descent hostile toward African-Americans in the film were those manipulated by Anglos or traitors to their own kind. According to the movie, the violent inflicted upon blacks by Irish immigrants was the instigation of Federal military policy. By embracing this viewpoint, Scorsese seemed unwilling to face the the real hostility that had existed between Irish immigrants and African-Americans years before the draft riots in July 1863. Actually, both the Irish and the Anglo-Americans – “the Natives” – were racist toward the blacks. One group was not more tolerant than the other. The movie also featured Chinese immigrants as background characters. In other words, not one of them was given a speaking part. If Scorsese had really wanted the New York Draft Riots to be the centerpiece of this movie, he should have focused more on race relations and been more honest about it.

I really wish that I had enjoyed “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. I really do. I have always been fascinated by U.S. history during the Antebellum and Civil War periods. But after watching this film, I came away with the feeling that Martin Scorsese either had no idea what kind of film that he wanted or that he tried to do too much. Was “GANGS OF NEW YORK” a period crime drama or a historical drama about the events that led to the New York Draft Riots? It seemed as if the director was more interested in his tale about Amsterdam Vallon and William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. If so, he could have followed the William Poole-John Morrissey conflict more closely, set this film where it truly belonged – in the 1850s – and left the Civil War alone. I believe his handling of the Civil War proved to be a major stumbling block of what could have been an well done film.

Advertisements

MR. HOLMES” (2015) Review

 

“MR. HOLMES” (2015) Review

Arthur Conan Doyle created a force of nature when he set out to write a series of mystery novels featuring the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. His novels have not only provided a series of movie and television adaptations for the past century, but also the Holmes character has led to a great number of movies, novels and television series that featured original stories not written by Doyle. Among them is Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind”.

About a decade later, “MR. HOLMES”, a film adaptation of Cullin’s novel finally hit the movie screens. Directed by Bill Condon, the movie told the story of a 93 year-old Sherlock Holmes, who has returned to his Sussex farm, following a trip to Hiroshima, Japan in 1947. The aging retired detective had taken the trip abroad to acquire a prickly ash plant and use its jelly to help him improve his failing memory. Apparently, Holmes has been unhappy with his ex-partner Dr. John Watson’s account of his last case, which occurred over 30 years earlier, and hoped to write his own account. Holmes recruits the help of Roger Munro, the young son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, to help him regain his memories and care for the bees inside the farmhouse’s apiary. Over time, Holmes and Roger develop a strong friendship. And Holmes’ memories of his last case prove to be different than he had expected.

When I had first decided to see “MR. HOLMES” in the movie theaters, I did not expect it would be a mystery involving crime. I felt certain that it would more or less be a character study about the famous fictional detective. Not only was I right, I was also surprised to learn that Holmes’ last case said a lot about a certain aspect of his personality and how much he had changed through his relationship with Roger Munro and his mother. The movie also focused on Holmes’ trip to Japan and the curious relationship he had developed with a Mr. Tamiki Umezaki, who helped him find the prickly ash plant. Holmes discovered that Mr. Umezaki had a reason, other than admiration for his past reputation as a detective, for helping him. The latter believes that Holmes knows the real reason why his father had abandoned the Umezaki family many years ago. Only Holmes does not remember.

Ever since its release in theaters, “MR. HOLMES” has been showered with acclaim from film critics, aside from a few who were not completely impressed. When I first saw the trailer for “MR. HOLMES”, a part of me immediately suspected that the movie would feature a mystery. But I also suspected that the mystery would have nothing to do with a crime. I was proved right when I finally saw the film. In the end, “MR. HOLMES” proved to be at its core, a character study of the fictional detective. But the movie is also a study of a man struggling with aging and the slow loss of his memories and faculties. Due to Holmes’ failing memory, the details surrounding his last case and the disappearance of Mr. Umezaki’s father served as the story’s two mysteries.

A character study of Sherlock Holmes. The last time I saw a similar narrative unfold occurred in the 1976 movie, “THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION” in which the detective struggled with cocaine and morphine, along with an unpleasant childhood memory. But the 1976 movie also featured a mysterious death and kidnapping. No crimes were featured in “MR. HOLMES”. The interesting aspect about “MR. HOLMES” is that the detective’s last case revealed an aspect about his personality that he had never acknowledge or recognized in the past. A personal shortcoming that led to the final failure of his last case. And this discovery . . . this failure led him to retire as a private detective in disgust. And yet, thirty years later, Holmes finds himself struggling to face that aspect of his personality again, due to his relationship with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son, Roger.

Overall, “MR. HOLMES” was an interesting and well-paced experience for me. I thought director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher did a first-rate job in exploring not only Holmes’ personality, but also the other major characters featured in this movie. I also have to give kudos to both men for being able to maintain the story’s main narrative and unveiling the mysteries of Holmes’ past, while flashing back and forth between the detective’s past and present. And they did this without the movie falling apart in the end.

I also have to give kudos to the movie’s production values. Production designer Martin Childs did an excellent job of re-creating both London in the 1910s, along with Sussex and Hiroshima in the mid-to-late 1940s. There was nothing earth shattering about his work, but I believe it served the movie’s purpose. His work was ably enhanced by Jonathan Houlding and James Wakefield’s art designs, and Charlotte Watts’ set decorations. In fact, the movie’s entire production values seemed to be in a state of understated elegance, including Keith Madden’s costume designs, which ably re-created the wardrobes of the two decades featured in the movie.

If Ian McKellen failed to get an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the aging Sherlock Holmes, I will be disgusted. I was amazed at his ability to portray the same character in two different time periods, yet at the same time, reflect at how much that character had changed over the years. And remained the same. Another Oscar potential performance came from Laura Linney, who was outstanding as Holmes’ put upon housekeeper, Mrs. Munro. First of all, I thought she did a first-rate job of recapturing her character’s regional accent. And two, she did a superb job of conveying her character’s unease over the growing friendship between her son and Holmes. If Milo Parker can stay the course, he might prove to be an outstanding actor as an adult. He was certainly first-rate as the very charming and intelligent Roger Munro. He also managed to hold his own against the likes of both McKellen and Linney.

I have not seen Hattie Morahan in a movie or television production for quite a while and it was good to see her. More importantly, she was superb as the housewife Ann Kelmot, who was under investigation by Holmes in the past. The actress managed to effectively project an intelligent, yet melancholic air that nearly permeated the film. “MR. HOLMES” is probably the first dramatic project I have ever seen feature Hiroyuki Sanada. Well . . . perhaps the second. I have always been aware that he was a first-rate actor. But I feel that he may have surpassed himself in giving, I believe, the film’s most subtle performance. I was astounded by how delicately he shifted the Tamiki Umezaki character from an ardent admirer of Holmes’ who wanted to help the latter to the emotional and suspicion son, who demanded to know the whereabouts of his missing father. The movie also featured solid performances from Roger Allam, Patrick Kennedy, Frances de la Tour, John Sessions and a surprise cameo appearance of Nicholas Rowe (who portrayed the fictional detective in the 1985 movie,“YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES”).

As much as I enjoyed “MR. HOLMES”, I believe that it suffered from one major flaw. Some critics had complained about Holmes’ visit to Japan and more specifically, his visit to the Hiroshima bomb site. I did not have a problem with Holmes and Mr. Umezaki’s visit to the famous site. Personally, I found it rather interesting. On the other hand, I had a problem with the subplot regarding the mystery of Tamiki Umezaki’s father. I will not spoil the ending of this particular story arc. But needless to say, I not only found it disappointing, but downright implausible. Was this how Mitch Cullin ended the Umezaki story arc? If so, I wish Hatcher and Condon had changed it. There was no law that they had to closely adapt Cullin’s novel.

Aside from the Tamiki Umezaki story arc, I found “MR. HOLMES” very satisfying, engrossing and very entertaining. Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher did a top-notch job in adapting Mitch Cullin’s novel. And they ably supported by the subtle artistry of the movie’s technical crew and the superb performances of a cast led by the always excellent Ian McKellen.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

6a00e5500c8a2a8833017743d3741a970d

 

THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

The year 1963 saw the release of Tony Richardson’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel,“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. Another thirty-four years passed before another adaptation of the novel appeared on the scene. It turned out to be the BBC’s five-episode miniseries that aired in 1997. 

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a comic tale about the life and adventures of an English foundling, who is discovered in the household of a warm-hearted landowner in Somerset named Squire Allworthy. The latter adopts the child and Tom Jones grows up to be a lusty, yet kindly youth; who falls in love with one Sophia Western, the only child of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom is raised with the squire’s nephew, a falsely pious and manipulative young man named Mr. Blifil. Because the latter is Allworthy’s heir, Sophia’s father wishes her to marry Mr. Blifil, so that the Allworthy and Western estates can be joined as one. Unfortunately for Squire Western and Mr. Blifil, Sophia is in love with Tom. And unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tom is discredited by Mr. Blifil and his allies before being cast away by Squire Allworthy. In defiance of Squire Western’s wishes for her to marry Mr. Blifil, Sophia (accompanied by her maid, Honour) runs away from Somerset. Both Tom and Sophia encounter many adventures on the road to and in London, before they are finally reconciled.

Actually, there is a lot more to “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”. But a detailed account of the plot would require a long essay and I am not in the mood. I have noticed that the 1997 miniseries has acquired a reputation for not only being a first-rate television production, but also being superior to the 1963 Oscar winning film. As a five-part miniseries, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” was able to adhere more closely to Fielding’s novel than the movie. But does this mean I believe that the miniseries is better than the movie? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if I can agree with that opinion.

I cannot deny that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a well made television production. Director Metin Hüseyin did an excellent job of utilizing a first-rate production crew for the miniseries. Cinders Forshaw’s photography was well done – especially in Somerset sequences featured in the miniseries’ first half. Roger Cann’s production designs captured mid-18th century England in great detail. And Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes designs were not only exquisite, but nearly looked like exact replicas of the fashions of the 1740s. The look and style of “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” seemed to recapture the chaos and color of mid-18th century England.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could also boast some first-rate performances. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings as Mr. Blifil’s allies, Mr. Square and Reverend Thwackum; Kathy Burke, who was very funny as Sophia’s maid, Honour; Celia Imrie as Tom’s London landlady, Mrs. Miller; Peter Capaldi as the lecherous Lord Fellamar; Tessa Peake-Jones as Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget and Benjamin Whitrow as the squire. The episode also featured solid turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Camille Coduri, Matt Bardock, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Sylvester McCoy. Max Beesley was solid as Tom Jones. He also had good chemistry with his leading lady, Samantha Morton, and did a good job in carrying the miniseries on his shoulders. However, I do feel that he lacked the charisma and magic of Albert Finney. And there were times in the miniseries’ last two episodes, when he seemed in danger of losing steam.

But there were some performances that I found outstanding. Brian Blessed was deliciously lusty and coarse as Squire Western, Allworthy’s neighbor and Sophia’s father. I really enjoyed his scenes with Frances de la Tour, who was marvelous as Sophia’s snobbish and controlling Aunt Western. Lindsay Duncan gave a subtle performance as the seductive Lady Bellaston. James D’Arcy was outstanding as Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the sniveling and manipulative Mr. Blifil. Ron Cook gave the funniest performance in the miniseries, as Tom’s loyal sidekick, Benjamin Partridge, who had earlier suffered a series of misfortunes over the young man’s birth. Samantha Morton gave a superb performance as Tom’s true love, Sophia Western. Morton seemed every inch the graceful and passionate Sophia, and at the same time, conveyed the strong similarities between the young woman and her volatile father. But the one performance I truly enjoyed was John Sessions’ portrayal of author Henry Fielding. I thought it was very clever to use Sessions in that manner as the miniseries’ narrator. And he was very entertaining.

The producers of the miniseries hired Simon Burke to adapt the novel for television. And I believe he did an excellent job. I cannot deny that the miniseries’ running time allowed him to include scenes from the novel. Thanks to Burke’s script and Hüseyin’s direction, audiences were given more details on the accusations against Jenny Jones and Benjamin Partridge for conceiving Tom. Audiences also experienced Bridget Jones’ relationship with her cold husband and the circumstances that led to the conception of Mr. Blifil. Judging from the style and pacing of the miniseries, it seems that Hüseyin was inspired by Tony Richardson’s direction of the 1963 film. There were plenty of raunchy humor and nudity to keep a viewer occupied. More importantly, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” proved to be a fascinating comic epicand commentary on class distinctions, gender inequality and social issues.

However, I still cannot agree with the prevailing view that the miniseries is better than the 1963 movie. Mind you, the latter is not perfect. But the miniseries lacked a cinematic style that gave the movie a certain kind of magic for me. And due to Hüseyin and Burke’s insistence on being as faithful to the novel as possible, the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag in certain scenes. The scenes featuring Tom and Partridge’s encounter with an ineffectual highwayman, their viewing of a puppet show, and a good deal from the London sequences were examples of the miniseries’ slow pacing. I could not help feeling that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could have easily been reduced to four episodes and still remain effective.

I also had a few problems with other matters. One, I never understood why Lady Bellaston continued her campaign to get Sophia married to Lord Fellamar, after Squire Western prevented the peer from raping his daughter. Why did she continued to make life miserable for Tom after receiving his marriage proposal . . . the same proposal that she rejected with contempt? And what led Sophia to finally forgive Tom for the incident with Mrs. Waters at Upton and his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston? After he was declared as Squire Allworthy’s new heir, Sophia refused to forgive Tom for his affair with Lady Bellaston. But the next shot featured Tom and Squire Allworthy returning to Somerset . . . and being greeted by Sophia, along with hers and Tom’s children. WHAT HAPPENED? What led Sophia to finally forgive Tom and marry him? Instead of explaining or hinting what happened, Burke’s script ended on that vague and rather disappointing note.

But despite my problems with “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”, I cannot deny that I found it very enjoyable. Director Metin Hüseyin and screenwriter Simon Burke did a first-rate job in bringing Henry Fielding’s comic opus to life. They were ably assisted by an excellent production staff and fine performances from a cast led by Max Beesley and Samantha Morton.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.