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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » The Good Shepherd (HD DVD)
The Good Shepherd (HD DVD)
Universal // R // April 3, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 6, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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For the better part of a decade, Robert De Niro had tried to realize his vision of a spy movie that didn't lean on megaton explosions, elaborate stuntwork, arbitrary romances, or breakneck car chases as a formulaic crutch. I have to admit to being more fascinated by this story -- De Niro's attempts to convince Universal to invest a hundred million dollars into his turgid, uninvolving pet project -- than a pencil-pusher at the CIA with daddy issues.

The Good Shepherd, a sweeping epic only by the current Hollywood definition since its runtime approaches three hours, is a somewhat fictionalized account of the CIA's role in the earliest days of the Cold War. Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, plucked from the secret Skull and Bones society at Yale for counterintelligence work overseas in World War II. It's a duty that for six long years separates him from a woman he wed purely out of obligation (Angelina Jolie) and the young son he'd never met. After returning home to his wholly unfamiliar family, Wilson continues his unwavering commitment to serving his country regardless of the morally repulsive steps that must be taken, playing a key role in the formation of the CIA. No one is to be trusted in this Cold War era of fear and uncertainty, and Wilson's sense of duty and his inability to trust anyone or anything takes its toll on him and his family. The movie alternates between these flashbacks of Wilson's early days at the CIA and how that would shape the man he would become with his investigation decades later of a blurry black-and-white photograph and reel-to-reel tape that may hold the key to revealing the mole inside the CIA responsible for sabotaging the Bay of Pigs invasion.

The two most frequently cited complaints in reviews of The Good Shepherd revolve around its length and lack of action. The film's subdued, prolonged approach didn't bother me, but even though I didn't feel bored, I wasn't engaged or involved either. Its central character is as icy and detached as Cold War paranoia demands, keeping the audience as far at arm's length as the flat cariactures who surround him, and the rest of the blandly written cast is there purely to hammer home the point that the world can't be made safe for democracy without serious moral compromises. Wilson is established early on as not having much of a personality; every once in a great while, his face will crack into a smile or the inflection in his voice will change, but even in his youth, the character is grim and laconic. These are traits that make sense in the context of the film but don't make for a particularly compelling lead, especially in a movie clocking in just under three hours in length. The talents Wilson wields that make him such a key figure in this era of the CIA are discussed but virtually never shown in use. We're told that he's an unparalleled genius at counterintelligence, a plot point that's referenced often but is only seen in action when a story he fabricates about Hitler having syphilis is circulated on the radio.

The storytelling is so clumsy that the revelations in its mini-climaxes are either telegraphed far in advance or leave no impact whatsoever. The Good Shepherd has a sprawling cast -- including turns by Joe Pesci, Keir Dullea, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, and De Niro himself -- many of whom seem poised to have intriguing stories woven around them that are almost immediately ignored. The acting is unilaterally strong, but their characters are too thin to sink their teeth into, leaving the cast ultimately unable to elevate the middling, meandering screenplay. By the time The Good Shepherd lurches to a close, it feels less like a movie and more like a checklist, determined to make sure that certain figures and events made it into the film but disinterested if much of anything is done with them.

The Good Shepherd is an ambitious film, but the story of the formation and influence of the CIA is too expansive to adequately cover even in the space of three hours. Perhaps the additional breathing room of a mini-series would have allowed for a more richly-drawn story, or an intense focus on a specific time period could've addressed some of these same themes and concerns more effectively in the constraints of a feature length film. The Good Shepherd is an uninvolving compromise, offering flat characterization as it haphazardly glosses over key events throughout the first couple decades of the Cold War. The story of the CIA's role in the early years of the Cold War is a fascinating one, and perhaps one day an equally fascinating film will be produced about it. The Good Shepherd, despite its best intentions, is not that film.

Video: The Good Shepherd's 2.39:1 high-definition presentation instantly impresses. Wilson is introduced with a pair of tweezers in his hands as he carefully places a ship in a bottle, and the dazzlingly detailed image reveals individual flecks of dust on his magnifying glass and the texture of the ship's delicate paper sails. Contrast and fine object detail are both consistently staggering, to the point where I may have been able to better tolerate such a flat, uninvolving movie because I was so frequently distracted by how wonderful it looks in high definition. The Good Shepherd does a poor job aging Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon throughout the film, but it more effectively conveys the passage of time with its palette. A number of the scenes set in the present highlight hues that are overcast and on the brink of desaturated, while the film's flashbacks are generally bright and at times intensely vivid. I couldn't spot any edge enhancement or compression artifacts, and as is to be expected from a day-and-date release, no imperfections such as wear or speckling are present in the source. I'm rarely disappointed with the way recent theatrical releases look on HD DVD, but Universal often stands out as the best of that already impressive lot, and The Good Shepherd is in keeping the exceedingly high quality of their releases.

Like all of Universal's day-and-date releases, The Good Shepherd has been issued on a combo disc, and its flipside is an exact copy of its standard definition release and will play in any traditional DVD player.

Audio: The Good Shepherd is a film primarily driven by its dialogue, and the cast's line readings are rendered crisply and clearly throughout. The sound design accordingly places most of its emphasis front and center, but the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio does find cause to make use of the other channels at its disposal, placing whispered voices in the surrounds and scattering thunderous explosions from the Bay of Pigs throughout the soundscape. The score and its few sound effects boast a full bodied presence and are accompanied by an appropriate level of bass. Much like the film itself, the audio deliberately avoids being distractingly flashy, and this is an effective mix that suits The Good Shepherd's understated aesthetic.

A French dub has also been provided alongside subtitles in English and French. As seems to be the norm for Universal these days, a Spanish subtitle stream is only available on the DVD side of this combo disc.

Extras: A great deal of behind the scenes footage, rehearsals, and interviews were shot for The Good Shepherd, but for whatever reason, none of them were compiled into any featurettes or documentaries for the film's DVD release. Universal did find some use for the footage with this HD DVD, collecting them into one of their U-Control features. I gave it an hour and honestly felt like I was wasting my time. More recent titles such as Smokin' Aces have an improved version of U-Control, but The Good Shepherd's implementation still suffers from the flaws I've found grating for months now.

There's really no interactivity -- it's just a picture-in-picture commentary track -- and yet viewers are still required to continually press a button every time they want to see this additional footage. This means using U-Control requires keeping a close eye on the bottom-right of the screen and making sure a remote is easily accessible throughout the entire length of the movie. I thought that the point of this sort of feature was to enhance the experience of watching a movie, not make it tedious. It doesn't help that there's so little material, and at least for the hour I watched, the overwhelming majority of the interviews are not screen-specific. Despite having a small army of participants -- Robert De Niro, Matt Damon, John Turturro, William Hurt, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, screenwriter Eric Roth, producer Jane Rosenthal, U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and CIA technical advisor Milt Beardon, most of the comments are uninsightful: how did the project come together? Isn't the cast amazing? What was it like being directed by a seasoned and respected actor like Robert De Niro? I was intrigued by some of the comments about De Niro befriending ex-KGB agents, the process of weeding out the weak at the CIA, and notes about the class of people that made up the FBI prior to World War II, but that's too small a part of the feature for me to recommend it.

Ported over from the DVD edition are sixteen minutes' worth of deleted scenes, offering some slight Cold War intrigue and better fleshing out the character of Wilson's brother-in-law. The most noteworthy aspect of these scenes is that they're offered in high-definition, and even if the footage isn't as polished as the stellar quality of the film proper, the boost in resolution is appreciated and will hopefully soon become the standard for these sorts of extras.

Compatibility Issues: The Good Shepherd suffers from some of the same playback problems that have plagued other Universal releases. In fact, the entire reason I'm writing this is because it wouldn't play in another reviewer's Toshiba XA2, despite firmware upgrades and even unusual steps such as boiling the disc. The Good Shepherd played without any concerns on my first-generation HD-A1, but owners of more recent players may want to consider renting the disc first or waiting for a corrected release to be issued.

Conclusion: The early days of the CIA make for a potentially intriguing story, but a documentary would offer a more coherent narrative and would probably be more involving besides. The HD DVD's technical presentation is flawless (on the right player, at least), but the bloated list price, flat storytelling, sparse extras, and compatibility issues leave it better suited to a rental. Rent It.
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