DVD Review: The Good Shepherd
I’ve already reviewed Robert DeNiro’s sprawling spy epic in detail when it came out theatrically, but Universal’s recent DVD release of The Good Shepherd gave me a chance to re-evaluate the film. My initial impression was that it was ultimately a bit of a flawed masterpiece, but ever since I’ve been appreciating it more and more in retrospect, slowly forgetting its flaws. Unfortunately, on re-watching it, they’re all still there. In its current cut, it is a flawed masterpiece. There are just too many plot-lines that suffer from apparent excessive cutting, whole, crucial beats that seem entirely missing. Luckily, the first time I saw this the writer, Eric Roth, was there to explain those holes to the inquisitive audience immediately afterward. Had he not been, I might still be in the dark as to exactly what happened with Billy Crudup’s character, or at what point Wilson’s (Matt Damon) son ended up in the CIA. (One moment he’s still in college, expressing that ambition to his father; the next he’s already got a station of his own in some far-flung corner of the world.)
Perhaps at the expense of these missing beats, though, Roth’s script dwells on a number of vignettes about the early days of the CIA, apparently borne of a desire to cram in every great (mostly true) bit of lore about that era he could fit. Many of these are only tangential to the movie’s driving storyline, but I wouldn’t want to see them cut, either, for they are the moments that attract me most in the film, and will probably prove more interesting to anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of the Agency’s history than the (wholly fictional) A-story of uncovering the identity of the mole who leaked crucial details of the Bay of Pigs plot.* For me, it’s fascinating to see these thinly-disguised variations on so many of the wildly imaginative–if thoroughly unethical–covert operations the young CIA engaged in to thwart the spread of communism in Europe and Latin America. I suspect it will prove so for any viewer with a strong interest in real-life espionage, but each time I’ve seen this movie now I’ve been with someone else without that interest–and they were each bored.
For me, the ideal version of The Good Shepherd would probably be the fabled original 4 hour cut, provided that it did, indeed, include both the historical vignettes and all the beats necessary to tell a coherent story. Roth intimated that this version would eventually see light of day on DVD, but that day is sadly not today. This disc includes just the theatrical cut of the movie, and only sixteen minutes’ worth of deleted scenes by way of bonus material. Much to my disappointment, none of these deleted scenes are the ones Roth described, the ones that clarify the movie’s sometimes baffling omissions. Instead most of the ones included here relate to a wisely-cut sub-plot involving Clover’s (Angelina Jolie) brother, John, in an underdeveloped Manchurian Candidate sort of situation. And that’s it for special features.
My hope is that these scenes were chosen because they don’t make it into the longer cut, either, and that down the line we will see a Director’s Cut DVD with all the pertinent material re-incorporated, explaining why it hasn’t been included here. There were many moments in the film’s trailer (mostly violent moments, as the trailer was trying to misrepresent it as some sort of action movie) that didn’t make the final print either, and those are also absent, as is the trailer. Hopefully all of that will appear in the future.
For now, we’re left with a rather bare-bones DVD that presents the film entirely adequately (Bob Richardson’s stunning cinematography looks almost as good as it did in the theater), but only in its flawed theatrical version, and sans bells and whistles. Rent it if you’re a spy history buff (which I assume most readers of this blog are, to some extent), but wait for the (hopefully) inevitable double-dip to buy. Ultimately, it's something you'll probably want to own (I can see myself rewatching it again and again despite its shortcomings), and I really hope Universal delivers an edition worth getting one day.
Click here to read my original review of The Good Shepherd.
*This same fascinating mystery gets another fictional solution in Samantha Weinberg’s engaging trilogy of historical James Bond novels, The Moneypenny Diaries, the first two volumes of which are currently available in England.