Thursday, April 12, 2007


I loved most of John le Carre's Absolute Friends: the long middle section dealing with the career of Cold War spy Ted Mundy is like an elaboration on and elongation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But the "frame story" - dealing with "current events" issues like the War on Terror - suffers from the same problem as The Constant Gardener: as Ron Edwards notes, it's pretty explicit in its politics ("It's not possible to read one's own agenda into it"), but le Carre is not at his best when he's being explicit. He's a master of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, of depicting overlapping loyalties, and of getting at the way lying for a living can infect all personal relationships (friendships, romances, marriages) with debilitating paranoia. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I don't think he's a great thriller writer - that is, he doesn't handle the nuts-and-bolts with the flair of a master like Ross Thomas. So, though le Carre seems to want the frame story to work like Eric Ambler, what you get instead is Robert Ludlum done without Ludlum's straightforward conviction and B-movie sensibility. (Again, The Constant Gardener suffered from the same problem: as Alan Dale points out, once the ambiguity of the hero's wife's character is resolved, the story is almost exactly the same as that of The Fugitive). (See the comments section for spoiler-laden elaboration).

Still, the stuff that the book gets right dwarfs its faults.

One of the things I liked best about it was that it gets across that one of the things that draws the main character towards spying is that he finds it exhilarating (if not enjoyable). It reminded me of something from Joseph Wambaugh's recent Hollywood Station, where an older cop tells a new recruit that being a police officer is more fun than almost any other kind of job. It was neat to see this in a police procedural, where the emphasis is usually on police work as a solemn duty (as in Michael Connelly's books) or police work as just another day at the office (as in Ed McBain's excellent 87th Precinct series).

The idea that espionage can be exhilarating does not play a big part in the admirable but, perhaps, too-stately, too-straightforward CIA movie The Good Shepherd. In its favor: he production is gorgeous and its "message" - that members of the Greatest Generation betrayed their patrimony and ruined things for their children by fighting the Cold War the way that they did - is fairly unique for a contemporary Hollywood movie, both in its refusal to romanticize the Americans who won WWII and in its acknowledgement of the ethnic/class issues tied up in the very idea of "the Greatest Generation" (in this, it reminded me a little of Quiz Show).

Still, despite the potential complexity of the movie's subject matter, De Niro's direction is almost too simple: in The Godfather, with which The Good Shepherd has been understandably but erroneously compared, each scene was full-to-bursting with "movie stuff" - theme, ideas, plot, performance, ambiguity, tragedy, comedy, observations of life and character. But in The Good Shepherd, each scene conveys one-and-only-one idea. This wouldn't be so bad, except that the movie is also long and slow. When old-fashioned, large scale Hollywood moviemaking is at its best - as in The Godfather or The Best Years of Our Lives - it tends to be pretty light on its feet (or at least relatively light on its feet), but The Good Shepherd is plodding. Eric Roth's screenplay seemed to be a bit thin: I kept thinking of David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and how The Good Shepherd probably would have been better if it had been made on that scale - if had looked underpopulated and under-produced, instead of having a huge cast and lavish production values.

Also problematic: Matt Damon's performance as Edward Wilson - a man who keeps everything on the inside - makes sense conceptually, but it's kind of a drag to watch. Especially since Chris Cooper does something similar in Breach but figures out a way to make it interesting for the audience.

I liked Breach when I saw it, cooled on it a little bit in the following weeks, but, after seeing The Good Shepherd, I really appreciate what it accomplishes: it does a much better job depicting the psychology of being a spy than The Good Shepherd. Breach's problem is that its a little dramatically unbalanced: Ryan Phillipe is fine in his role, but, IMO, his character needed to be more interesting for the movie to work as more than just a showcase for Chris Cooper's excellent performance.

1 comment:

Jon Hastings said...

*The Big Bad Guys in Absolute Friends turn out to be a consortium of neo-conservative Christian militarists. But, in the novel, le Carre shows little knowledge or understanding of neo-conservatism or the Christian movement in America. Rather, I get the sense that he knew that "neo-conservative" and "Christian" are both bogeyman words, so combining them would be an even bigger bogeyman. In a Robert Ludlum-style novel, this would be perfectly fine. But in a book that takes pains to note the differences among various types of leftist, anti-capitalist groups, the lack of nuance here is jarring. It doesn't help that the Bad Guys' plan is a little moldy (it's essentially the same as the one in Mission: Impossible 3).