There are men who do the killing and then there are the men with the real power—the ones who order the kill. As far as espionage movies go, Robert DeNiro’s sophomore directorial effort “The Good Shepherd” probably gets closer to what it is really like in the shadowy business of state secrets than many other movies do. It can’t really all be hot babes and high-tech gadgetry al the time, can it Mr. Bond?
A sprawling two-hour and forty minute epic that moves at a slow pace, “The Good Shepherd” is nevertheless swamped in fascinating detail. Being realistic may be to its detriment in the ‘action’ department, but the Central Intelligence Agency probably is run by secretive, emotionally detached men in suits who do a lot of scheming and talking. In that respect, the film’s perceived accuracy helps give it some hefty dramatic weight.
A studied look at the birth of the CIA, it traces the life of powerful operative Edward Wilson. Although Wilson never existed, the character (as played by a taciturn Matt Damon) is a composite of several actual people. As the film opens, it is 1961 and Wilson is riding the bus like every other businessman going to work. Nobody would suspect that one of the architects of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was among them. Nor would they expect that this inconspicuous little man was once an idealistic young poetry student.
“The Good Shepherd” establishes this dull and serious man, along with a mystery concerning an unidentifiable photograph and audio tape that’s been left under Wilson’s door. DeNiro and screenwriter Eric Roth then periodically flashback to Wilson’s younger years to show how he’s become the shell of a man that sits before us. There is a glut of background information to cover in both stories, so rooting them in mysteries gives the audience a sense of suspense, even when the story takes one of its many detours.
It turns out Wilson’s life has always included secrets. He comes from a privileged but tainted background, since his father committed suicide when he was a young boy. He swipes Dad’s final note without telling anyone that it existed, and keeps it hidden—and sealed. At Yale, Wilson becomes a member of the notorious real-life secret society Skull and Bones (to whom John Kerry and both Bush presidents are purportedly members of). What an exclusive little club it is that holds such massive power, and Wilson is one of the many men who were plucked right out of college for a powerful position.
On his wedding day, Wilson accepts a job overseas with WWII’s Office of Strategic Strategies, effectively ending a relationship with his wife and son before it ever gets started. What good is nationalism when it costs you your entire life? A high premium is placed on loyalty by his fellow operatives, but in practice Wilson finds that notion to be idealistic as well. When other agents get themselves into sticky affairs or prove too dangerous for their own good, they are dispatched like just another enemy combatant.
DeNiro draws the parallel between this personal breach of trust that Wilson perceives within the organization and the perpetuation of the Cold War. Since nobody can be trusted, paranoia becomes a way of life for him. The film suggests that this paranoia is a direct product of the agency’s methods, and is as responsible for existing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviets as any political issue. Wilson is an agitator, pursuing leads with great enthusiasm in a high stakes game played by important men.
Damon is fantastic, giving Wilson a selfless sympathy even when he’s cheating on his wife (played by a woefully underused Angelina Jolie). Playing an inward, subdued man over a span of at least 30 years is no small task. Damon’s slow realization of his family’s seemingly endless cycle of unhappiness is heartbreaking, even if we are way ahead of him. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a lifetime to kick the idealism out of someone completely.