We are given a glimpse into the power plays that affected world history from World War II to the Bay of Pigs, but Roth's script balances the history lesson with the effects of the lies and deceptions on the never-quite-ordinary lives of Wilson, his father figures and his family, including his wife Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie).
The stellar cast ranges from film veterans William Hurt, John Turturro and Alec Baldwin to quiet cameos from Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro to relative newcomers Damon, Jolie and Billy Crudup. Damon's subtle performance serves as the lynchpin in a series of psychological explorations into conflicted father-son relationships.
Wilson drifts from his disgraced father Thomas (Timothy Hutton), who committed suicide, to various secretive mentors (Hurt, Baldwin and even DeNiro) to his barely formed connection with his own son (Eddie Redmayne).
Through it all, Damon's sense of understatement is reminiscent of Al Pacino in the first two Godfather films, which is fitting given that Francis Ford Coppola served as an executive producer on this project.
So with Scorsese busy bloodying things up in The Departed with Jack Nicholson and Coppola taking a backseat, DeNiro becomes the unlikely hand at the helm. It's not that surprising, though, when you consider the father-son dynamics on display in 1993's A Bronx Tale, his only previous directing effort.
And then there's his unique relationship with Scorsese (and, to a lesser degree, Coppola). It's hard to contemplate Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull without the combination of Scorsese and DeNiro (not to discount in any way The King of Comedy or Casino). These two men share a unique filmic history that goes far beyond the mere iconic. There might come a time when the impact of their joint efforts will be discussed in the same tones as Shakespeare's indelible mark on theater.
In Damon, DeNiro has the perfect foil, the WASP counterpoint to all of the fury he himself brought to the lower end of the spectrum in the Scorsese and Coppola crime classics. Damon admirably acquits himself by doing all of the heavy lifting through The Good Shepherd's 40-year narrative span without relying on anything other than control over his own body to illustrate the effects of time on Wilson. It's a performance that never draws attention to itself, but the overall dourness keeps the film from soaring to greater heights.
In Nicolas Hynter's adaptation of The History Boys, veteran English actor Richard Griffiths is a mythic siren. His girth pulls the eye like gravity. His manner and wit transform the grandiose language of the theater into sharp dialogue that beguiles on the big screen. The History Boys belongs to him, and so should all discussions about supporting performances this year.
But Boys is not likely to attract that degree of attention outside a few critics' organizations. The film, adapted from a successful stage play, will remind most viewers of Dead Poets Society and a few more discerning filmgoers of Notes on a Scandal, another recent British release with Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
Actually, the two films would make quite a double feature with their takes on the interactions between teachers and their students.
In some ways, Boys is smarter than Poets, likely because its characters, both young and old, speak in those perfectly calibrated quips that zipped and zagged before live theater audiences. Yet Boys, much like Mike Nichols' recent Closer, opens up a bit and lets in some air. The period (the early 1980s) soundtrack contains enough British Post Punk to buoy our spirits, but the heart and soul that beats here belongs to Griffiths.
His Hector, one of a team of teachers preparing a small group of whip-smart schoolboys for entrance into Cambridge and Oxford, offers lessons in higher philosophy with a touch of the real world. As that touch attracts the unwanted attention of school officials and the community, Hector could have easily become a stock victim/villain preying on young boys. But Griffiths captures the essence of this man, who's not all that different from the ancient Roman scholars who tutored boys in the arts and life.
It's not humor that makes him a sad clown but his tragedy, which, of course, is the heart of comedy. The Good Shepherd grade: B+; The History Boys grade: A