Currently, we are living in an America where secrets have a huge effect on public policy and our culture. When the press exposes secret government programs, the president says they are helping terrorists and putting Americans in danger. American soldiers are currently fighting a war supported by intelligence that was later discovered to be not as reliable as originally thought.
Now is the perfect time for a movie about the origins of the Central Intelligence Agency. “The Good Shepherd” aims to be the definitive film about the CIA. It’s a strong effort, but ultimately one that comes up a bit short. Sadly, it’s one of those movies that you admire more than you actually enjoy.
For proof that “The Good Shepherd” was a labor of love, one needs look no further than the fact that the movie is only Robert DeNiro’s second effort as a director. His last endeavor behind the camera was “A Bronx Tale” all the way back in 1993. There was clearly something DeNiro wanted to say badly enough to come back after 13 years.
The film is a fictionalized account of the birth of the CIA and the men who were with the institution from the ground up. Matt Damon plays the main character, Edward Wilson, who is recruited for the agency after graduating from Yale, where he was a member of the secretive Skull and Bones society. The movie is a study in how keeping secrets, especially big ones, can cause someone to slowly lose his soul and his ability to make human connections. Edward never really loves his wife, Margaret (Angelina Jolie), and he has a cold relationship with his son, Edward Jr., too. He does grow to love his son (played by Eddie Redmayne as a young adult), but the only other person in the world he seems to have a connection with is a deaf girl named Laura (Tammy Blanchard) he used to date in college. Damon does a good job in playing Wilson as an unemotional character, but it makes it a bit hard for the audience to connect to any of the characters, let alone the movie as a whole.
Because of this emotional detachment, some plot points don’t ring true. Through a chance encounter, Edward meets Laura many years after he last saw her. They spend the night together and Margaret finds out because some secret agent takes pictures of them (a recurring plot device). Since the audience never gets the sense that this has ever been any more than a marriage of convenience, it doesn’t seem to make sense when she angrily confronts him about the infidelity at a Skull and Bones banquet. She says she feels humiliated. So why does she make the accusation in front of all their high-society friends.
The tone and themes of the movie echo that of last year’s excellent “Munich,” which screenwriter Eric Roth also worked on. They both deal with shadowy, anonymous characters with large historical consequences. The characters are also committing morally questionable acts in the name of their country. Of course, “Munich” had Steven Spielberg’s skillful direction, but the biggest difference between the two movies is that the characters in “The Good Shepherd” mostly give orders and do not carry them out. The Mossad agents in “Munich” travel across Europe trying to eliminate Palestinians, but the CIA agents in “The Good Shepherd” are mostly bureaucrats. We witness the interrogation of a Russian and a couple of deaths, but almost all the real action is offscreen. This makes logical sense because Edward is a powerful figure who doesn’t get his hands dirty, but it makes for some rather dull stretches in what should be a very compelling movie.
This is nitpicking, but I should also add that the aging of the characters is pretty unconvincing, and this distracts the viewer from the movie. This wouldn’t matter as much if we were only dealing with adult characters, but we actually see Edward Jr. grow up and graduate college. Damon and the other leading actors don’t look like they could have aged more than 10 or 15 years even though his son becomes the same age he was at the start of the film. Also, the movie jumps around in time, taking us from the end of World War II to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. This can be especially confusing if one doesn’t have at least a cursory knowledge of Cold War history, and the lack of realistic aging only adds to this.
Still, the movie is impressive in many ways and shouldn’t be considered as failure. I hope DeNiro decides to direct more movies in the future because with a little more focus on character and practice he could be capable of greatness as a director.
“The Good Shepherd” is rated R. No one under 17 will be admitted without a parent or guardian.