The Good Shepherd is great in the way that movies used to be great. It’s great by building layer upon layer, scene upon scene, without relying on flash. It’s always staying on story, the details matter, and the acting is superb all the way through. Thankfully it looks like the major awards will overlook it and the audiences will shun it, that’s the reward it will receive for being elegant and dignified. Sigh. I hate people.
If you’ve caught a trailer you’re probably aware that this is the story of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. It spans 40 years of Matt Damon’s life; (as Edward Wilson) from childhood to devious international games. Damon is very good as the boy turned operative; he gives off nothing and doesn’t talk much. He’s menacing in the pathological sense of the word, he doesn’t need grandiose speeches or idle threats. He’s much better at simply pulling strings. The Bay of Pigs invasion is featured quite prominently as a plot point and provides plenty of intrigue. The movie drips with a quiet dread, secrets and trouble around every corner and in every mirror.
Angelina Jolie is the female lead; she’s effective as his non supportive wife. Thankfully this isn’t a “watch the Damon become slowly corrupted and destroy his relationship” style of story. Rather it’s the tale of an initially screwed up relationship with Jolie that’s made worse by the fact that Damon can’t share anything with anyone, he can’t trust a damn thing. Damon is in fact a monster of another stripe in that his actions are completely justified no matter what the situation is, he stands for the U.S. government and the U.S. government sure as hell doesn’t have to put up with a wife who needs some attention.
The Good Shepherd, if you’re looking for modern day movie parallels, is like Spy Games with a doctorate. More complex, more dark, and less in your face. The movie takes a lot of patience but if you’re willing to invest your brain for a bit you’ll be very happy with the movie.
Deniro does fine work in guiding the film and it’s a shame he hasn’t directed more. His character in the film, a general, provides the closest thing to a devil’s advocate against the awesome secret power that the intelligence services are building. Alec Baldwin also makes an appearance in what is turning out to be quite a year for him (The Departed, Running with Scissors). There is very little doubt that 95 percent of the movie is on Damon’s shoulders though, and the fact that he hasn’t been recognized by anyone on the award scene yet is a small “quality cinema” murder.
This movie’s drawbacks are the running time (165 minutes) and the somewhat confusing logic. You’ll want to see it with a friend and talk it out afterwards because it doesn’t make anything very obvious. Things happen behind the scenes that you’ve got to surmise using the clues given. To me that makes The Good Shepherd great, you get almost three hours worth of interesting subject matter followed by some buddy time once the credits come up to decipher what the hell just happened. If you want you can also pull at the strands of what this country was founded upon, when is murder the right thing to do, and when do secrets eat us alive? There isn’t a shortage of ideas presented here, only a shortage of people willing to consider them.