The Good Shepherd features an all-star cast, an intelligent and relevant plot, and some expert behind-the-camera work. Yet it has been, if not panned, then damned with faint praise, mostly because of its length and pace. At its center, Matt Damon plays largely against type: by film's end he seems just another briefcase toting bureaucratic shlump, a clerk in the dreary uniform and grey environs of Washington, D.C. And the ending itself is a downer, though it follows perfectly from the preceding story.
Remarkably, this is a spy flick, though about as far from 007-dom as one can get. Starting with the 1961 debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, then shifting back and forth in time between that low point and the preceding decades, the storyline remains clear. In part, that clarity comes from the rhythmic repetition of certain events"”an initiation ceremony, an annual retreat"”which establish the film's structure and its controlling themes. The "men's club" atmosphere and secrecy dominate, at the cost of spouse, family, and finally, one's soul.
The family of Edward Wilson (Damon) all but disappears from his life from the time that he is recruited by General Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro) as one of the original operatives for the OSS, the World War II forerunner of the CIA. His wife, Margaret (Angelina Jolie), and his son scarcely know him, and vice-versa. Damon plays Wilson as laconic to the point of silent, with only rare outbursts of emotion, usually anger, almost never love. (The long stretches of silence will test some viewers' patience.) The screenplay's suggestion that he is, at base, a romantic, a dreamer, seems misplaced.
Unless one equates dreaming with patriotism, allegiance to a concept of America that is dying even as the story unwinds, a country run by an upper-class, all-white, "Old Boys" network. The Yale secret society Skull and Bones symbolizes and embodies that larger society: we are reminded often how many rich and powerful men are members and how much they control events, politics, and lives. When Wilson meets his Russian counterpart (Oleg Stefan), we are visually and verbally reminded that this kind of control is scarcely limited to America.
The issues of loyalty and trust emerge in several ways, along with the obvious reiteration of secrecy and lies, spoken or implicit. Courage is defined in terms not so mcu physical as moral. Knowledge is power, sometimes; yet "knowing too much" can prove fatal. Director/co-producer DeNiro circles around these ideas, finding them in at the heart of both family and politics. Eric Roth's complex, deeply ironic screenplay returns to the week following the Bay of Pigs, then weaves in an a scene from years earlier to indicate that, in the spy game, nothing's new under the sun. The action unfolds within the tragic world view.
DeNiro has surrounded Damon and Jolie with a stellar supporting cast. Watch for such veterans as William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci, Timothy Hutton, Keir Dullea, Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, and Billy Crudup in roles large and small. The understated, dimly lit cinematography works perfectly for the themes, and the musical score not only helps to establishe the period of the action but deftly comments upon it as well.
The Good Shepherd is appropriately rated "R" for "some violence, language, and sexuality," though the violence is basically limited to one harrowing torture scene and the sexuality largely suggested, rather than explicit. (Women are often peripheral to the action, which is, of course, part of the point.) In any case, I'd guess that most teens (not all!) will find this one too slow for their tastes. Adults should make a point of seeing it.