January 24th, 2007

Tom (The Godfather)

"We make sure the wars are small ones."

I have to admit that I'm not really surprised to see that the film that I thought was the greatest overall achievement in cinema of 2006 I've thus far seen, Alfonso Caurón's brilliant yet heavy Children of Men, didn't get many nods. It only netted nominations for adapted screenplay (Caurón, Timothy J.Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and editing (Alex Rodriguez and Caurón). I think it has a good chance of netting the photography award, but it's under some stiff competition. In fact, the line-up for best cinematography actually is one of the most impressive I've ever seen; Lubezki, Dick Pope, Guillermo Navarro, Wally Pfister and the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond.

As far as the score nominations are concerned, while the list is a bit strange, at least there's nothing outright embarrassing on that list. Gustavo Santaolalla is an interesting nom because he's not a member of the Academy, but he stands a good chance to win as part of a Babel sweep. Thomas Newman was nominated once again for the great, old fashioned The Good German and Alexandre Desplat and Javier Navarrette both have their first nods, for The Queen and Pan's Labyrinth, respectively. Philip Glass' nomination for Notes on a Scandal is strange considering the negative reaction the score got; his film music has often left me cold, and I was wondering if the critical establishment was coming around to my way of thinking. Of course, I thought that Glass' score for The Illusionist was anomaly, but nevertheless one of the very best of the year, so maybe his style is becoming more film-compatible (to my taste, at least).

Interestingly, I have seen a grand total of none of the films that were nominated for Best Picture, though The Departed, Letters from Iwo Jima and The Queen are all on my list (the latter two, along with The Good German, are currently playing at Kew Gardens Cinema, the local art film theater).

The award ceremony will be held February 25th. I'll find out who won what on the morning of the 26th, as I've given up sitting through the whole, tacky affair just to see who did the best wine-and-dine job. But the Oscars are indeed significant; they can make a person's career and they can also destroy it by placing too much expectation on them. We shall see.

Robert De Niro's direction of The Good Shepherd is very quiet, concentrating mostly on getting as much out of Matt Damon's subtle performance as he can. Damon plays Edward Bell Wilson, whom screenwriter Eric Roth based loosely on the actual C.I.A. counterintelligence operations director James Jesus Angelton. Finding acceptance and the male comradeship he desperately craved growing up in the Skull and Bones society, he soon finds himself at the forefront of counterintelligence. And he finds that his natural stoicism works well for him in that context... but he also finds that the necessity of paranoia in his occupation is a slippery slope that costs him his already tenuous personal ties. In one of the film's most fitting ironies, the most honest relationship he has in the film is with his Soviet Counterpart, Ulysses (Oleg Stefan). Damon's performance is very different from his usual, relatively bubbly screen persona, which works quite well in this context. His reserved exterior is perfect for the type of work that he perceives he is required to do in service of his country, but it also covers some demons that he can't quite hide, including a streaks of sexual impulsivity and racism.

The film doesn't take the easy way out and avoid politics; quite to the contrary, it opens with the disasterous Bay of Pigs operation, and the film alternates between Wilson's rise to the level he is at that point during the beginnings of the Cold War and how he and his assistant Ray Brocco (a quietly menacing John Turturro) picking up the pieces after that mess. Much of the film hinges on the concepts of trust and loyalty, both of which are essentially meaningless terms by the end of the film. Wilson's beliefs and loyalty are absolute, but the means by which he interprets this - and the prices he is willing to pay for them - are brought under question. Ultimately, the movie affirms that while espionage is a necessity for any country, but examines the cost to each player in the spy games.

The cast is, of course, first rate. The Angelina Jolie Ultra Suck Factor does not mar this film; quite the opposite, she is very effective in her role. William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Timothy Hutton, Keir Dullea (whose career seemed to go through a stargate just like his most famous film character), Joe Pesci and even De Niro himself lend their own specific brands of gravitas to the proceedings. Production designer Jeannine Oppewall and her crew got the only Oscar nomination for this film, and their work is quite good, as is Robert Richardson's stately widescreen photography. I found the score by Bruce Fowler and Marcelo Zarvos to have been an appropriately understated affair, but a bit repetitive in context of a nearly three-hour film. While the pace of the film has been questioned elsewhere, I have to say that I don't think that the film would have worked quite as well if it didn't have the breathing room it needed to tell its story at its own rhythm. The film is a 'think piece,' and as a result it requires more time to appropriately tell its story, which spans over two decades. This is not an epic, but the story's intimacy is held in check by the nature of its primary characters. suitboyskin pointed out that just as The Godfather was a movie about a family that just happened to be gangsters, this is a film about a suit who happens to be a counterintelligence director. While there are moments here and there during which the film somewhat telegraphs its themes, it is not gimmicky.