December 22, 2006 10:12am EST
The Good Shepherd is billed as the story of how the CIA began but it is really the fictional story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) and his involvement in the first covert wing of the CIA. The story moves back and forth in time from when Edward is a literature student at Yale and a member of the secretive Skull and Bones club through the days following the Bay of Pigs in the early ‘60s. Edward is recruited into intelligence work at the beginning of World War II and learns the dark art of spying and espionage from the British. Meanwhile his personal life takes a back seat to his service for his country including alienating his wife Margaret “Clover” Wilson (Angelina Jolie) and their son. He is never home enough to effectively deal with the family problems his absence creates. By the end of the film as the twin disasters of the Bay of Pigs and his broken family unfold--and blame must be assigned--Edward ends up being a metaphor for the modern US intelligence service. Damon who has made a franchise out of playing the spy/assassin Bourne plays a very different kind of spy in The Good Shepherd. Wilson is a boring controlled buttoned down spy who is unfortunately more like the real thing than what we see in the movies. Damon does an excellent job however especially in those moments when he realizes he has screwed up. The actor stays controlled but finds a way to let the audience glimpse the pain of a man who has spent his life keeping his emotions and thoughts under wraps. Jolie is almost too luminous for the part of Edward's hapless wife. She is a bright spot in the movie as she transforms from the sexy/feisty Clover to the medicated/angry Margaret. Newcomer Eddie Redmayne also does a good job as the grown up Edward Wilson Jr. The rest of the cast is peppered with excellent performances from top-flight actors including William Hurt as a menacing intelligence heavy; Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series) as a British intelligence officer who’s fed up—and even De Niro himself as a general who’s the driving force behind the CIA’s beginning. De Niro captures the nature of the gray-flannelled spy but seems to get bogged down with material unable to craft a tight compelling film. The Good Shepherd is long and feels long with some of the transitions too abrupt. The subdued colors evoke the period of the film as well as play into the monotony that is intelligence work. But the problem with monotony is that it’s boring and boring is not something a movie should be. There are some incredibly intriguing scenes however and the film will certainly speak to any of those with genuine interests in the hardcore spy genre--obviously De Niro being one of them--but like its subject matter Shepherd will probably be too elusive for the casual viewer. De Niro seems much more comfortable in the details but less interested in keeping the story gripping. Ironically this is the exact opposite of the main character Edward Wilson who keeps his eye on the big picture but misses the small moments he should have noticed.