The Good Shepherd
Directed by Robert De Niro

Written by Eric Roth

Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie


The Good Shepherd

This is the story of a man with less of the human being in him than anyone you or I have ever met. I don't mean he is a monster, nor a murderer, except perhaps by indirection; but he is a man who early in life left his humanity behind in order to serve what he thought of as a higher purpose. And I don't mean that he kills what we now call 'civilians.' They are out of bounds in the game of spy and counterspy, where neutralizing, coopting or eliminating one's counterparts are the goals to be achieved.

"The Good Shepherd" is about Edward Wilson, perhaps a James Jesus Angleton clone, played to perfection by Matt Damon as a man who would hide even a pencil on his desk if he thought someone's seeing it might help the enemy, as he moves from Yale and its secret society Skull & Bones in the 1930s, to the O.S.S. during World War II, to the CIA, ultimately in charge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, that catastrophic debacle for the agency because Castro had learned from leaks within the agency exactly where it was to come, and when. Along the way he is involved in the CIA's coup in Guatemala, and in the first chess-moves of the Cold War.

As he graduates Yale, with a deaf girlfriend (Tammy Blanchard), he is introduced to Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), the sister of his Skull & Bones friend; a one-night stand leaves her pregnant and he marries her out of obligation. [I will not comment on the improbability of marrying Angelina Jolie out of obligation.] But he is immediately off to London during the Blitz and does not come back for six years, to meet his son for the first time.

This is the first film I can recall seeing whose central figure is a stone-faced cipher, and although that fact is obviously intended to be revealing to us it does just the opposite; we care little or nothing for Edward, because he has shown us nothing. We can look and pry and speculate around the edges, but there's no there there, no human being.

The film returns again and again to the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, as the agency tries to analyze muffled sound tracks and fuzzy photos that might be a key to reveal whoever leaked. It also goes back to various earlier times, of meetings with supposed Russian defectors (how does one guarantee that they are for real?) and to Edward's son Edward Jr., who has now also gone to Yale and joined Skull & Bones, and who on graduating now wishes to join the CIA like his father.

The film was written by Eric Roth and directed by Robert De Niro, who also has a cameo as the man who creates the O.S.S., and it shows its debts to both John Le Carré and his George Smiley, and to Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather, particularly Al Pacino's actions in Part II. But De Niro has let the film sprawl too much (it runs almost two and three-quarter hours) with too little action to sustain the time. We're always waiting for Edward to mull things over before he speaks, and then too often it is only to nod yes or no. Jolie brings a bit of fire to her scenes, but we wonder why she - or anyone, for that matter - would put up with Edward for so many years. The pacing is choppy, the flashbacks and flashforwards come at odd moments, and so the film never builds any kind of arc of tension, never moves us nor carries us along toward some point of resolution. The film is an honorable failure, but a failure nonetheless.