“Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro star in this powerful thriller about the birth of the CIA. Edward Wilson (Damon) believes in America, and will sacrifice everything he loves to protect it. But as one of the covert founders of the CIA, Edward’s youthful idealism is slowly eroded by his growing suspicion of the people around him. Everybody has secrets…but will Edward’s destroy him? With an all-star cast including Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton and John Turturro, it’s the gripping story David Ansen of Newsweek hails as “spellbinding.””
“The Good Shepherd” is rated R for some violence, sexuality and language.
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 than 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.
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