In The Departed, Matt Damon played a member of the Boston mafia undercover in the Boston Police Department. In The Good Shepherd, he returns to the right side of the law to portray Edward Wilson, an ardent patriot and Yale scholar who ultimately becomes one of the founding members of the CIA. Wilson, a fictionalized character based on long-time CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, is the focus of the Robert De Niro’s second directorial effort (the first being 1993’s A Bronx Tale), and though long and sometimes convoluted The Good Shepherd succeeds in telling a dramatic and gripping story that proves to be one of the year’s best films.
The film at first seems to be telling two stories involving the same characters, one set in 1961 in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the other moving forward from Wilson’s early years through the trials of his career. At Yale, Wilson is a bright student of poetry when he is approached by FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) to spy on his thesis advisor, a Nazi sympathizer (Michael Gambon). As it will throughout the film, Wilson’s patriotism wins out, and because of his success in this he is approached to join the Office of Strategic Services. Wilson also becomes a member of the ultra-secret, ultra-selective Skull and Bones society at Yale, and through this he meets both his wife Clover (Angelina Jolie) and the men that will follow and influence him throughout his career. The film moves forward through the war, Wilson’s troubled home life, the beginning of the Cold War, and the founding of the CIA before arriving at its final destination.
‘The fact is, there’ll be no one you can really trust,’ Wilson is told at one point, and, indeed, questions of trust are, thematically speaking, the heart of the movie. Wilson’s employment in a business where he can trust no one renders him paranoid and ruthless, and he is continuously asked to sacrifice his family and his values to serve his country. In one scene after another, what is made clear is Edward Wilson’s devotion to his duty; De Niro is concerned with how that devotion ultimately costs Wilson everything. A great many people will claim that The Good Shepherd is anti-American, and it is true that it raises questions about the methods of government and rule, but in the end it is about an individual, not about a system.
With the exception of Jolie, everyone in the cast gives an excellent performance, and even she might have pulled it off had her role not been so dramatically underwritten. Alec Baldwin’s world-weary FBI agent is a small but pivotal character; William Hurt as another ‘Bonesman’ and Wilson’s superior is excellent; Billy Crudup’s British spy plays well with Damon’s Wilson; Lee Pace and Keir Dullea do everything right; even Joe Pesci in a cameo role gives a surprisingly good performance. John Turturro, playing Wilson’s personal assistant Ray Brocco, is especially worthy of notice, as he work just right with Damon in their many scenes together.
Yet it is Damon himself who towers over all of them. His portrayal of Wilson is quiet and subtle, but riveting at the same time; he brilliantly portrays both Wilson’s changes and his uncomfortable sameness. Much of his time onscreen is spent watching people and assessing them, and even in these moments, when he has nothing to say, Damon communicates volumes with his body language and his eyes, peering out from his round glasses as if he can pierce right through someone. His Wilson is somehow both horrifying and tragic, and by the end of the film it’s difficult to decide whether to admire him or to condemn him for his unswerving loyalty to his country.
Though it at times slips into the melodramatic, especially in a few ill-conceived moments at the end, I can think of only one or two better movies in 2006. De Niro’s directing succeeds at every level, never becoming dull or frenetic (as happened in, for example, Flags of Our Fathers earlier this year), moving at more or less just the right pace. There were times that I wasn’t sure what was happening onscreen, and even now I’m not absolutely certain about the meaning of the film’s concluding scenes, but from so intricate a plot that is to be expected, and at no point in the movie’s two and a half hours was I not riveted on the action onscreen. The Good Shepherd, with all its questions, and despite its thematic darkness, is one of the best films of the year.
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