Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Good Shepherd

What it is about

I always thought action, horror and thrillers are solely my kind of genre in my family. So I got (pleasantly) surprised when my wife - even before the DVD release - told me how much she wanted to see this. Later, I understood this movie maps to her ex-institution (school) that was named the same. Thankfully, she was not talking of CIA. Actually, even if she had, I would not know of it!

That's all this movie is about -- secrets and the fine balance between sharing and keeping it. When a piece of information becomes useful for a good cause it becomes knowledge. But when another piece has some destructive potential it becomes a secret. Like the surprise birthday present for your spouse that you guard with all your power for several days only to reveal it at the right time - secrets are closeted and strongly guarded waiting for its time to come. A secret that is never revealed is probably only a shameful trivia, not exactly a secret.

Imagine the first secret of your life. Whatever it is, it probably had caused you pain, anguish, conflict and a certain other seemingly avoidable feelings. Or, if you are like Edward Bell Wilson (Matt Damon) in this movie, that very secret might become the spinning wheel of your life events. The greatness of secret is not in keeping it wrapped -- that's the easiest part; the absolute art is in the process of revealing it - where and when. Good Shepherd, directed by De'Nero, does an almost poetic yet ruthless job in showing one such cycle.

Probably because I was born in a state in India run by democratically elected communists (that's my favorite example of "oxymoron"), my first introduction to CIA was during a then popular play. Through a song that went like -

"Bon theke berulo tiya-
Ranga Topor MathaY diya.

Keno keno keno?
Sob jante parbi cia r kache.
Cia cia cia"

(CIA pronounced as in Shia. To rhyme with "Tiya").

Translated, it means -

"The parrot with a headgear bright.
Came out of forest right.

Why How Where?
Ask CIA. Ask CIA. Ask CIA.
That's why they are there!"

I was a preteen and this song made me extremely fond of this thing called "Shia". This feeling was later supplemented by the local leftist media that would print the allegations blaming CIA for a school bus accident in Vietnam or, for a wild bush fire in Congo. No one even talked about who organized the state leaders' killings. It was all so obvious. Arafat must have known about it before, but CIA sent people to do the task. That was what our parents and we all agreed upon at that time.

When watching GS, I remembered a quote from a movie I recently watched (Shooter) and smirked to myself thinking of the line spoken by a FBI agent -

"Come on. We cannot be THAT smart. Otherwise we would not work for the Federal government."

Times changed. There is no more organized, methodical cold war in the world anymore. Our biggest threats now come from a herd of hard-to-trace, independent terrorist "cells". How relevant is a mammoth organization to tackle the latest range of threat is another question, but it surely was relevant during the time span of this movie.

Edward starts his conscious decision making by keeping his father's suicide note a secret, even from himself. He gets drawn, almost by fate, to the dark and darker alleys of secrets and gets employed during the chilly second world war days in charge of "counter intelligence". Counter intelligence is not so much about letting no secrets out to the enemy. That's impossible. Their goal is to keep the secrets buried, and never come out within the enemy so it becomes virtually useless. Edward's family life suffers. If it were today, I would have used a stronger word than "suffered". I just had to when the husband spent five years away from his newly married wife, working out the secrets and breaking it. In the end, just like it did in the beginning, Edward's biggest secret comes around to haunt him and his family.

This is neither your Grand-mother's spy thriller (Le Carre, anyone?), nor it is the Vodka Martini spy action like James Bond. Good Shepherd is more like a real life documentary, clearly traversing through characters that existed and events that happened at regular intervals. You could never shake a death off saying "oh yeah! that chase was cool". You could never - facing an intelligence failure - brush it away as "too stupid". You yourself could not have done better there in reality. I gathered this movie was based on the real life character of the guy who headed the counter intelligence in the early CIA. I hope so. Because if it were not, I would never ever again believe that reality is far more intriguing than fiction. Always.

Angelina Jolie was superb in portraying a wife who marries a wrong man at the turn of a wrong moment of passion, but lingers on. De Nero appears in a cameo and offers some diversion from the unidimensional tension that was building up. Joe Pesci was hilarious in the very short role of an Italian mafia-owning-legit-business.

When to watch it

Don't - unless you enjoyed the first time you spilled the beans on someone! Was that a moment that brings that smart-ass smile on your lip right now? Then rush to watch it right NOW!

The pace may be a bit too slow for usual spy thriller fans, but you have to realize that real life James Bonds just don't wake up next to a hottie - who can die for him and does - and then go on killing a whole bunch of people during the day wearing a tux.

Good Shepherd - just like the recent "Zodiac", "Hollywoodland", "Black Dahlia"- points to the latest Hollywood obsession with reality and the dark secrets that may lie underneath.

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