© 2006 Ray Wong
The early history of CIA (the Central Intelligence Agency), as depicted in a fictionalized version in The Good Shepherd, is a fascinating premise, especially given today's political climates. What's more interesting is that fiction always mirrors reality, and The Good Shepherd is said to be based on real stories about real CIA agents.
Edward Wilson (Damon) is a man of few words, who believes in honoring and protecting the country he loves. As a member of a secret society, Skull and Bones, Wilson makes life-long friends including Richard Hayes (Pace). Both are quickly recruited by fellow Bonesman, General Sullivan (De Niro), who is starting a new intelligence organization for the United States. Wilson is to work in the counter-intelligence department as the war in Europe quickly escalates. The agency is going to be headed by another fellow Bonesman, Philip Allen (Hurt).
Meanwhile, Wilson falls in love with Laura (Blanchard). But a night of passion with the Senator Russell's (Dullea) daughter, Clover/Margaret (Jolie) yields a son. A man of honor, Wilson marries Clover, and is promptly sent to London to aid in CIA business in 1939. After six years, he returns home as a stranger to his wife and son. His job at CIA requires him to be secretive, and he doesn't share anything with his family. For 20 years, he is but a ghost to Margaret and their son.
Matt Damon (The Departed) is fantastic as the taciturn, conflicted, even tormented CIA operative. His character is the complete opposite of his crooked cop in The Departed, and Demon pulls it off spectacular. The only problem is, his character is such a prisoner to his ideologies and sense of duties that it makes the character a rather passive and impotent one. Angelina Jolie (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) has a minor but pivotal role, and conveys the loneliness, bitterness, and helplessness in her situation as Wilson's invisible wife.
The large cast include veteran actors who all excel in their work: Alec Baldwin (Running with Scissors) as FBI agent Sam Murach who cooperates with Wilson, Tammy Blanchard (Bella) as Wilson's unfortunate true love, Billy Crudup (Missing Impossible III) as Arch Cummings, Wilson's counterpart in England, Robert De Niro (Hide and Seek) as the mastermind behind CIA, Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) as Wilson's professor Dr. Fredericks, William Hurt (Syriana) as CIA head Philip Allen, John Turturro (Secret Window) as Wilson's loyal assistant, Eddie Redmayne (Like Minds) as Wilson's son, and Lee Pace (Infamous) as Wilson's friend and colleague Richard Hayes.
Notable cameos include Keir Dullea (2001: Space Odyssey) as Senator Russell, Timothy Hutton (Secret Window) as Wilson's father, Joe Pesci (Lethal Weapon 4) as an CIA informant, and Oleg Stefan (Heartbreakers) as defected Russian spy Ulysses.
Writer Eric Roth (Munich) has weaved an intriguing, if somewhat convoluted, yarn of thrilling drama, juxtaposing a man's journey with national duties, personal secrets and overt patriotism. The multiple timelines and plot threads can feel daunting sometimes, and one has to pay close attention to figure out who is who and what is going on in the world of espionage. The dialogue is exquisite and the historical details are fascinating. The problem is that it's hard to identify with any of these characters fully, including the protagonist. From the get-go, the story is a tragedy and it doesn't help that there's not much humor either. The film feels very heavy.
Actor-Director Robert De Niro (The Score) has given us a great vision with extraordinary production value. The set designs, costumes and props are vibrant with details. Most of the time, De Niro succeeds in keeping the story straight, but by the nature of the story, the plot can be confusing at times. The large cast doesn't make it easier, but De Niro mostly manages to keep his head above water. The pacing could have used some tightening -- there are many null spots and lingering long shots. However, the director's done a great job keeping the suspense and tension throughout the film.
The intriguing story gives us a glimpse of what goes on in one of the most secretive organizations of our history. It's also a human story ripe with moral questions such as "What is good and what is bad?" and "if you have to choose between your country and you/your family, which would you choose?" Such complicated dilemmas. The Good Shepherd may not be the best film of the year, but it's a darn good one.
Stars: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Keir Dullea, Michael Gambon, Martina Gedeck, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Lee Pace, John Turturro
Director: Robert De Niro
Writer: Eric Roth
MPAA Rating: R for some violence, sexuality and language
Running Time: 155 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 9
Total – 7.5 out of 10