The Good Shepherd Review
Details. Inside information. The sense that we're learning something about the inner workings of the espionage business. That's what's missing from The Good Shepherd, a lengthy potboiler spanning the first twenty years in the history of America's Central Intelligence Agency, from World War II to the Bay of Pigs. This movie is heavy on plot and brimming with characters but it comes up short on the insights into its subject matter that would have made it worthwhile. Shouldn't we come out of a two and three quarter hour epic about the birth of the CIA feeling like we know more about the agency now than when we did when we sat down?
The story begins at the end of those twenty years, in the aftermath of the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, in which CIA-supported Cuban rebels tried to topple Castro and were soundly defeated. The incident was a major embarrassment for the newly-elected President Kennedy, who hadn't been briefed about any invasion. He responded by cleaning house at the CIA.
Among the potential casualties is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a senior agent who was one of the invasion's architects. He's also under suspicion inside the agency as a possible mole. Someone supplied the Cubans with the location of the beach the rebels would be landing on and Wilson is one of the few people who knew it. The Good Shepherd intercuts Wilson's private investigation into the leak with extensive flashbacks to his two decades in the spy game. It all started with his recruitment into the elite student society, the Skulls and Bones at Yale University.
The Good Shepherd is Robert De Niro's second film as a director, following his excellent 1993 debut, A Bronx Tale. Ironically, what made A Bronx Tale so good is how well it convinced you De Niro knew his subject matter - working class Italian-Americans, the Bronx in the early sixties, low-level mafiosi. You felt you were getting a tour of a real time and place. The Good Shepherd reveals little about the CIA and about the Cold War and about espionage in general that you don't already know from a hundred other spy thrillers on the page and on film.
Instead of inside knowledge, there's an unoriginal plot that boils down to "a young idealist becomes corrupted by the world that surrounds him". The ads calling this the Godfather of CIA movies aren't wrong: this is The Godfather set at the CIA. That makes the story arc predictable, even if screenwriter Eric Roth does spring a few half-decent twists towards the end. There's also an inordinate amount of time devoted to domestic soap opera - to Edward's marital troubles, which are not very interesting. This does pay off later but that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to sit once more through familiar scenes in which the neglected wife (here played by Angelina Jolie) whines that her husband cares more about his profession than his marriage and son.
But what does Edward actually do in his twenty-year tenure at the CIA, while he's neglecting his wife and son? What does he do in Second World War London? In Cold War Berlin? In Washington? Judging by what's on the screen, Wilson's job mainly involves trying to figure out who the traitors are in his various operations and agonising over the deaths he causes. There must be a bit more to intelligence work than that. What are his duties and responsibilities? What do his operations entail? The only one we see in any detail involves dropping insects on a South American country's crops to undermine its Communist-friendly regime!
While The Good Shepherd doesn't find time to tell us how the CIA works, it finds plenty to tell us how awful it is. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that this is an anti-CIA movie and that it regards espionage as a nasty business. The criticisms however are obvious ones - that the CIA interferes in other countries' affairs, that it starts illegal wars, that its operatives torture and kill. Okay. The CIA does those things in Tom Clancy novels, which are meant to show the agency in a positive light, so I'm not sure to whom these revelations will come as shocking news. Much like its portrayal of the agency, the film's criticisms seem like they come from outsiders who've gotten their information from documentaries, books and articles.
This is a remarkably star-laden film. Besides Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, the cast includes William Hurt and John Turturro as CIA men, Alec Baldwin as an FBI agent, Michael Gambon as a college lecturer, Billy Crudup as a British spy, Timothy Hutton as Matt Damon's father, Joe Pesci as a mobster and Robert De Niro himself as an admiral. That's a very impressive cast and it's a shame more wasn't asked of them. Surprisingly, considering the quality of the acting in A Bronx Tale, no one is on their best form in this one, although Gambon does give a nice, underplayed performance. Angelina Jolie is defeated by her role and Matt Damon is only adequate. He has enough charisma to carry the film but he doesn't let us get to know his character very well. He's as distant from us as he is from his family.
I called The Good Shepherd a potboiler in the first paragraph and I think that sums it up. It's like one of those fat paperbacks by Arthur Hailey or Sidney Sheldon for which the author researched a subject (such as air travel or the automobile industry) and then merely used it as a backdrop for the same hoary old plot. The Good Shepherd is well made and it holds your attention for most of its running time but it's also disappointingly shallow. It's by no means the definitive movie about the CIA. As a chronicle of Cold War espionage, it barely scratches the surface.