Matt Damon as Edward Wilson
Angelina Jolie as Clover/Margaret Russell
Alec Baldwin as Sam Murach
William Hurt as Philip Allen
John Turturro as Ray Brocco
Michael Gambon as Dr. Fredericks
Tammy Blanchard as Laura
Billy Crudup as Arch Cummings
Robert De Niro as Bill Sullivan
Keir Dullea as Senator John Russell, Sr.
Martina Gedeck as Hanna Schiller
Timothy Hutton as Thomas Wilson
Gabriel Macht as John Russell, Jr.
Lee Pace as Richard Hayes
Joe Pesci as Joseph Palmi
Eddie Redmayne as Edward Wilson, Jr.
John Sessions as Valentin Mironov
Oleg Stefan as Stas Siyanko
Directed by Robert De Niro
De Niro’s well-intentioned attempt at examining the origins of the CIA could have been a film classic, if its intricate plot weren’t delivered at such a slow and tedious pace that it deadened the strong writing and performances.
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) loves his country, and when his country calls him into service during the early days of the Cold War, he’s ready to do whatever it takes to protect it from the Communist enemy. That often means neglecting his beautiful new wife (Angelina Jolie) and his young son (Eddie Redmayne), but that’s what it takes to be a key player in the formation of the government’s new Central Intelligence Agency.
On paper, “The Good Shepherd” could be one of the most intriguing projects of the last few years. The thought of showing the behind-the-scenes workings of the CIA, how it came to be, and the way it conducted business at the height of the Cold War is the type of movie that any espionage fan would drool over, especially with such a strong cast.
It doesn’t take long to get into the intrigue either, as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba has been compromised by a leak of information to the enemy, and the government’s chief intelligence agent Edward Wilson must find out who is responsible, his only clue being a film of two lovers in an unknown location. Modeled after “The Godfather II,” the film cuts back to flashbacks from Wilson’s past, from when he’s discovered at Yale and admitted into the secret Skull and Bones society, which contains many future politicians and world leaders. At a society function, he meets the wild-hearted Clover (Angelina Jolie), who seduces him and gets herself pregnant. Edward feels obliged to marry her, breaking the heart of his long-time girlfriend, but a week after getting married, Wilson is assigned to work for England’s OSS and shipped to Berlin for five years to help split up the spoils of war with Russia. (The potential for a crossover with “The Good German” is there at this point, but no, there’s no George Clooney cameo.)
For the most part, Wilson’s life is dedicated to protecting his country, first from Nazi sympathizers and then potential communists. As he gets further and further into his job, the film shows many of the techniques of intelligence and counter-intelligence used by the OSS and CIA in its early days, which makes for interesting viewing, especially when it cuts back to “present day” (that would be 1961 in this case) where Wilson’s team of experts try to solve the identity of the lovers in the film. Eric Roth’s script and dialogue are solid, but there’s just way too much information and story developments pushed on the viewer, most of them delivered in such a clinical way that it’s hard not to tune things out. With so many different agents and double agents popping in and out of the movie, it’s also not always clear who everyone is and what their relationship is to each other.
You have to give director Robert De Niro some credit for assembling such an amazing cast and trying to pull off such a vast and expansive story, but much of the film’s tedious pace can be traced back to Damon’s subdued performance as Wilson, which involves very little dialogue, expression or emotion. Some might point to Helen Mirren’s performance in “The Queen” as how something like this might work, but this kind of movie needs more dynamic characters to offset the amount of information and keep things moving. Most of that comes from the satellite characters like Angelina Jolie’s Clover, who only appears in a few key sequences. John Turturro offers some much-needed humor as Wilson’s smart-mouthed chief interrogator, but others, like Joe Pesci and De Niro himself, only show up for a few seconds, leaving it on Damon’s shoulders to carry the film.
The problem is that Wilson isn’t a very interesting character to begin with, and most of his actions do more to push the audience away then get them behind him, particularly the way he treats his family and friends to get his job done. This starts fairly early with a sequence involving Michael Gambon as Wilson’s Yale professor, who is accused of working with the enemy. Maybe if Damon had half the presence that Al Pacino did as Michael Corleone, Edward Wilson would have worked better as the film’s central focus.
Eventually, the flashbacks catch up to the initial story and we get more into Wilson’s family life, which is far more interesting, due to his tense relationship with his neglected wife and now grown-up son, a real stand-out performance by newcomer Eddie Redmayne. Angelina Jolie really makes the most out of her scenes, as her character deteriorates into alcoholism due to her husband’s neglect. For some reason, it’s more entertaining to see the two of them get into shouting matches than watching the film’s intricate plot twists, since those are the only times we see anything even approaching emotion from Wilson.
Death knell pacing aside, this is an adeptly-made film with cinematography and a score that gives it an epic feel that also harks back to the work of Francis Ford Coppola (the film’s original director), but when all the pieces are assembled, the movie’s just too long at two and a half hours, and too tedious and meandering to maintain interest for such a long period of time. In the hands of a more experienced director–like Coppola or Scorsese–”The Good Shepherd” could have been an astounding coup de grace of filmmaking; De Niro just doesn’t have the chops to pull something like this off just yet.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of spy movies who are really, really interested in the origins and workings of the real CIA around the time of the Cold War might be able to keep up with the intricate plot developments and overcomplicated character dynamics to keep from dozing off. Certainly, “The Good Shepherd” is the type of movie that would probably improve with repeat viewings, but God only knows who could sit through this experience twice. Bond and Bourne this most certainly is not.