The Good Shepherd (2006) Review

The Good Shepherd (2006) Review 1
The Good Shepherd (2006) Review 2
The Good Shepherd (2006)
Director(s): Robert De Niro
Actor(s): Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro
Running Time: 167 min
CGM Editors Choice
| December 22, 2006

The CIA makes good fodder for a dark tale of intrigue and government corruption at the highest levels; even though any reasonable conspiracy theorist will tell you that the NSA is the one to be scared of. Still though, the Central Intelligence Agency is a point of fascination for a great many people, not the least of which is Robert De Niro, who has wanted to make a movie about the birth of the Agency for nearly a decade now. With compelling material in hand and a stellar cast joined for the endeavour, De Niro has crafted an enthralling and fascinating film worthy of being called “The Godfather of CIA movies.”

Loosely based on the real lives of the people who were there, The Good Shepherd follows the life of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) from his days studying poetry at Yale in 1939 to the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. At Yale, Wilson is recruited into the secret Skull & Bones fraternity, which leads him to make powerful connections in politics and the military. He’s recruited into the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) by Gen. Bill Sullivan (De Niro) and sent overseas to help in the war effort. After the war, he’s again approached by Sullivan to participate in a new agency that will do for the coming Cold War what the OSS did during World War II: the CIA. Wilson’s life becomes an elaborate series of checks and lies that escalates his problematic relationship with his wife (Angelina Jolie), distances him from the son he hardly knows, and keeps him constantly looking over his shoulder and living in a world where no one can be trusted.

I have to admit that I love this cloak and dagger stuff and clearly De Niro does too because he milks it for all he can. The political intrigue is topped only by the moral ambiguity; the soul-sucking nature of intelligence work is examined without pity as we, along with Edward Wilson, try to understand the full consequences of what he’s gotten himself into. Wilson frequently comes back to notions and questions of what his life would have been like had he made different choices, but there is also a feeling that to a certain degree, Edward’s plunge into secret keeping was inevitable, starting with when he kept his father’s suicide note and never told his family.

De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth play with modern allegory questioning the moral authority of a government agency to make ethically questionably decisions in the name of national security. At one point De Niro’s Sullivan looks forward and wonders if they’re creating a monster and articulates his desire to ensure civilian oversight, while later his subordinate Hayes scoffs at the idea of opening the books of the CIA to the elected representatives of the country. The film covers a lot of ground, with a lot of characters who sometimes have double or even triple-layered motivations, but it’s never hard to follow. It runs over two-and-a-half hours, but it never feels slow or stagnant, and actually flies by at a rather quick clip as De Niro shuffles back and forth through the timeline.

It’s just too bad that a great actor like De Niro couldn’t get better performances out of his cast members. Damon sometimes seems zombie-like in his role and I realize that the character is supposed to be void of humour, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a man is void of personality. Jolie does what she can with the part of the put upon wife, but the fact of the matter is that there’s not much there for her to play with aside from the jilted and ignored spouse angle. I did like a lot of the supporting cast, like John Turturro as Wilson’s immediate underling and Alec Baldwin as Wilson’s FBI contact.

About the only thing that’s missing from The Good Shepherd is the scene where Wilson covers-up the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell and his campaign of disinformation to hide the existence of extraterrestrials. Then again I suppose that probably would have seriously affected the credibility of the film, and I don’t think that De Niro’s down with little grey men anyway.

Final Thoughts
REVIEW SCORE

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