The Good Shepherd
2006Director: Robert De Niro
Cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt
he trailers offered hints of the irony-free, deadly solemn piece of filmmaking we expect from an actor-turned-director attempting to make his Big Statement—Matt Damon looking haunted in a pair of bookish eyeglasses, Joe Pesci mumbling about “starting big wars,” and Michael Gambon warning of the soul-destroying effects of espionage. But after Daniel Craig revitalized the James Bond franchise with the brawling, tremendously entertaining Casino Royale and Steven Soderbergh edged close to empty formalism with The Good German, the last of the year’s major espionage-themed releases remained an open question. The Good Shepherd, a long-anticipated project helmed by Robert De Niro, promises a serious, probing look at spycraft. Indeed, De Niro’s new film, overlong, occasionally unfocused, and featuring several underwritten characters, has some of the usual flaws of the Statement Movie. Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, then, make no mistake—The Good Shepherd is a mesmerizing film, critical near-consensus be damned.
The Good Shepherd has been lambasted for many reasons, among these the issues mentioned above. The most bothersome critical reaction, however, is the seemingly irresistible urge to punish De Niro for, of all things, his ambition. Charting the growth of the CIA from its relatively humble World War II origins to its sprawling influence by the 1950s, the movie is monumental in both scope and complexity (but never difficult to follow). The story ranges from Britain during the Nazi Blitz to Cuba during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion, with a healthy dollop of Cold War maneuvering and even a portrait of 1930s Ivy League life thrown in for good measure. Seen through the eyes of Edward Wilson (Damon), a young recruit turned counter-intelligence master, the Agency evolves over thirty years from America’s “eyes and ears” into, more troublingly, its “heart and soul.” In the process, De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth argue, democratic accountability and U.S. morality on the world stage become distant memories as Thomas Jefferson’s republic transforms into an empire.
These ideas are heady and, if handled incorrectly, The Good Shepherd could have been a poorly executed polemic or an overstuffed mishmash of unconnected musings. Thankfully, the filmmakers demonstrate real grace and restraint as they develop the narrative, choosing to focus on Edward Wilson as their proxy for the larger political point of the film. A fresh-faced kid from Yale, Edward is somewhat naïve and more than a little sexually repressed, but still a gentle soul who enjoys reading poetry and spending time with his hearing-impaired girlfriend. But he is also the scion of an elite New England family, and therefore expected to join Skull & Bones (a notoriously WASP-centric rich kid secret society) and to serve his country whenever it may call on him. When the FBI recruit the boy to spy on his English professor for supposed pro-Nazi activity, the foundation for a life built on secrecy, amorality, and betrayal is laid.
These brilliantly effective opening segments show Wilson being led step-by-step into a world of shadows. Interestingly enough, the film depicts Edward’s first few ventures into espionage life as subconscious, Pavlovian expressions of duty. In this well-honed sense of noblesse oblige, one of the more intriguing sub-themes of The Good Shepherd, the trap is sprung with appeals to God and Country. Later, one finds oneself authorizing murder and torture in dimly lit back rooms. Edward Wilson’s journey from earnest idealist to amoral monster is gradual and subtle; only upon reflection does the audience realize that any change has transpired, let alone one so profound.
To my surprise, De Niro operates more comfortably on the larger canvas than the smaller one as Wilson marries, fathers a kid, and proceeds to systematically wreck his family with his paranoia, secrecy, and almost unnatural penchant for silence. Playing Edward’s long-suffering wife, Angelina Jolie does what she can, but her character is underwritten and appears to mystify the filmmakers. Despite De Niro and Roth’s best efforts, Wilson’s relationship with his son comes off as strained and unconvincing. Without exception, The Good Shepherd, like Wilson himself, functions far more effectively in the hushed world of Cold War espionage than in the histrionics of the home. Like his closest collaborator, Martin Scorsese, De Niro handles a large, interlocking narrative with real aplomb and a keen intelligence, eschewing over-the-top theatrics for subtlety.
The Good Shepherd would not succeed without Matt Damon, who masterfully makes Edward’s choices, no matter how amoral and shocking, seem utterly plausible, even inevitable. A cipher in a gray topcoat, Edward Wilson withdraws further and further into himself, finally becoming nothing more than a purely calculating, emotionless functionary, a tool of larger interests and values he no longer questions or even considers. But after thirty years in a world of shadows, betrayal, insularity, paranoia, and backstabbing, the film brilliantly convinces us, the most sacred laws of morality are easily breached.
The Good Shepherd is currently playing in wide release.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2007-01-09