Good Shepherd, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Good Shepherd is Robert DeNiro's fictionalized account of the birth and early years of the CIA. While the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, many of the characters have real-life counterparts. The lengthy movie (15 minutes shy of three hours) unspools like a cold war spy novel, with betrayals, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and fluid allegiances. The protagonist isn't the most sympathetic individual to reach the screen, but the vortex of moral and ethical uncertainties in which he becomes caught makes him an intriguing, although not likeable, individual.

Writers like Len Deighton and John Le Carre spent lifetimes introducing us to the tricks of the espionage trade from post-WWII Germany to the end of the Cold War. The Good Shepherd is very much cut from this mold, concentrating on the grunt work and cerebral analysis that forms the background of spying rather than on the ostentatious flourishes that cinema usually brings to the genre. While The Good Shepherd's Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is neither as multi-faceted or as engaging as either Smiley or Samson, he's a good focal point.

The film opens in April 1961 with a chronicle of events immediately before and after the Bay of Pigs debacle. As one of the few members of the CIA knowledgeable about this "dark" mission, Wilson is on the hot seat. Senator Philip Allen (William Hurt) has been charged with reporting directly to the President and he wants answers from Wilson. Because the specifics of the covert mission were so closely guarded, it is recognized that the leak came from someone highly placed. It's Wilson's responsibility to uncover the source of that leak. He gets some unexpected intelligence from an anonymously submitted, grainy surveillance photograph and a murky audio tape, both of which offer clues to the identity of the betrayer.

Much of The Good Shepherd is told in flashback. With 1961 used as a framing period, the film delves back into Wilson's history: his indoctrination into a secret society while at Yale; his relationship with a pretty, deaf co-ed, Laura (Tammy Blanchard); his ill-advised marriage to Clover (Angelina Jolie), who is pregnant with his son; his acceptance of an overseas post for the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services); his ascension to a position of power and influence in the CIA, which succeeds the OSS; and his cat-and-mouse games with Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), his KGB counterpart.

The story, written by Eric Roth, is ambitious, and De Niro gives it its due. The production is paced well enough that it doesn't seem to consume nearly three hours. There aren't a lot of "down" moments and the film doesn't threaten to bore. The slowest parts are near the beginning as we get to know the characters. Once the setup and introductions have been accomplished, The Good Shepherd moves with a quick, although not necessarily relentless, pace. Nevertheless, those who like more action and pyrotechnics from their spy movies (an affliction fed by the conventions of the James Bond movies) may find the film's slower, more real convolutions to be unsatisfying. This is a thriller, but it's a slow-burn one.

Wilson is played in a low-key manner by Matt Damon, who makes sure this personality is as far as humanly possible from Jason Bourne. Bespectacled and wearing a perfectly tailored business suit and hat, Wilson is the picture of any young executive from the '40s and '50s. He's an upright person of good character whose primary driving force is his patriotism. The character doesn't exhibit a strong arc but must face a series of moral and ethical dilemmas. The biggest of these occurs near the end (or the beginning, considering that the movie uses a wrap-around narrative style). Even after a series of ethically stressful events, Wilson maintains his position of staunch patriotism, but one has to wonder… Does he still believe in his country, or is the alternative too bleak to consider? If he repudiates his long-held values, does that mean his entire life has been meaningless and his sacrifices - which have been numerous - have been pointless?

This isn't Damon's most emotive performance, but he's effective in an "everyman" way. Wilson is smart and calculating, but he's not a superman. Damon is the glue that holds the movie together since he's the only actor deserving to be called a "lead." Everyone else falls into the supporting category. Angelina Jolie, Tammy Blanchard, and William Hurt have a fair amount of screen time. On the other hand, luminaries like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Alec Baldwin, and Michael Gambon are in only a handful of scenes. There are times when The Good Shepherd feels a little like "spot the star." I guess there was a lot of interest in this project, especially with De Niro attached as director.

The film's accuracy is open to question, in large part because the CIA isn't forthcoming about aspects of its history. As a result, there's fictionalization and conjecture mingled with fact. It may not pass the muster for a text book, but it makes for compelling and sometimes suspenseful viewing. Some of the most tense scenes are those that pit Wilson against his arch-nemesis, the Russian superspy Ulysses. (That's his code name.) These exchanges are always cordial but there's an underlying sense of menace.

In addition to the Wilson/Ulysses interactions, The Good Shepherd excels during those sequences during which Wilson and his associates work to decode and analyze the clues provided by the mysterious photograph and audio tape. We see the puzzle unfold until the final piece snaps into place. This process provides us with a window into the kind of painstaking manual work that was involved before the advent of computers and the Internet.

The Good Shepherd is equally fascinating as a character drama and as a cold war thriller. Wilson, purportedly a composite of two real individuals - James Jesus Angleton, a former director of the CIA's counter-intelligence staff, and Richard Bissell, a covert operations specialist – is an intriguing personality, even though his actions are usually predictable. The story of the CIA is less political than one might suppose. There are occasional comments about the dangers of a secret organization ("I want this… to be the eyes and ears of our country, not the heart and soul"), but the movie does not have an anti-spy/intelligence agenda. The bottom line is that The Good Shepherd is engaging cinema. The length is a drawback, but not a big one since the movie earns the majority of its 165-minute running time. De Niro pulls the viewer into the world he has created and holds him there, sometimes spellbound, until the story is over and the end credits roll.

Good Shepherd, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1