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The Good Shepherd (HD DVD Combo Disc)

I'm not sure how you write a screenplay designed to show the origins if the CIA and its operations up to and including the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. But I'm reasonably certain that no one in Hollywood has an inside track to the straight story, despite research into volumes full of speculation and unverifiable leaks. The true history of the CIA and the details of its operation are not exactly found in the public library or on the Internet, and for good reasons.

Hollywood has had a schizophrenic relationship with the spy thriller. It loves spy stories (think James Bond, Jason Bourne, etc.) but doesn't exactly love the spy game. The Good Shepherd is an attempt to tell it from another angle. Seen through the eyes of a single fictional agent over his 30-plus year career, its extended running time, lack of any real action, and oh-so-serious atmosphere succeeds as an interesting story but fails as a compelling film.

The problems begin early on, just before WWII, as future agent Edward Wilson joins a new government intelligence agency for reasons that are not at all clear, except perhaps because he feels betrayed by a respected college professor. But we never feel connected to Wilson, or even like him very much, as he battles personal and professional demons throughout his life. The movie appears to be determined to show us how this sort of work drains a man's spirit. The problem is that the Wilson character, played competently but stolidly by Matt Damon, never appeared to have much spirit to loose.

Co-star and first-time director Robert De Niro clearly wants to demonstrate that the spy game is slow, tedious work, not fast action, thrills, and shootouts, and that the spy never really knows everything that's going on or who to trust. But by the time you near the end of its glacially paced, 168-minute running time, you feel as if you're watching a different movie than the one you started with. The flashback structure can also be confusing, and several plot points remained unclear to me even at the end.

But I did find the movie interesting enough to stick through to the end, if only to find out how everything worked out.

The picture quality on the HD DVD side of this Combo Format disc (standard DVD on side 2) is good, though a little variable. Some scenes are crisp and detailed, others just a little soft. But overall it's a solid transfer, neither exceptional nor obviously lacking. There are a lot of dark scenes here, as you might expect, and they're well handled.

I was rarely surprised by anything in the audio. The dialog was clear, but the effects were generally subdued and the music unmemorable. But nothing in the DD+ soundtrack ever sounded out of place, distorted, or forced. This is not an action film, and the audio is completely appropriate.

In short, this is a good if unspectacular HD DVD of a rather slow, depressing, but nonetheless interesting movie. But it's not as good a film as it might have been.

Picture: 8.5 (out of 10)…Sound: 8.5…Film: 7.0

(Reviewed on a Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player, Panasonic PT-AE1000U LCD projector, 78" wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, and Arcam AVR350 receiver. Speakers: Mirage OMD-28 L/R, OMD-C2 center, OMD-R surrounds, and Revel B15 subwoofer.)

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