The Good Shepherd is a serious movie about a serious subject -- a nearly three-hour epic about the formation of the CIA, following its origins in the World War II-era foreign-intelligence service through its solidification as part of the permanent government establishment in the 1960s.
Directed by Robert De Niro and written by Eric Roth (The Insider), The Good Shepherd has a shifty but sober tone and complex narrative that matches its subject matter. It's a compelling movie that demands a lot of its audience but also perhaps is too convoluted and cold. With its dense structure of flashbacks, it's hard to find your bearings.
The film tells an institutional story by focusing on the life of a fictional operative named Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a colorless son of privilege described by colleagues as "the CIA's heart and soul" and "a serious S.O.B. that doesn't have any sense of humor."
Wilson is a poetry student at Yale in the late 1930s when he's tapped for the secret society Skull & Bones and later by an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin) to help expose a professor who's involved in the "American-German Cultural Committee." Both of these associations make Wilson a prime candidate for a World War II "foreign intelligence" operation. "This isn't a bunch of fraternity boys sitting around playing tug their pricks," says the general, played by De Niro, in charge of Wilson's recruitment. "This is real. This is for America."
As the CIA evolves as a Cold War extension of this foreign-intelligence operation, De Niro underscores the notion that the "agency" is a manifestation of same WASP-y love of privileged, rarefied intrigue that created Skull & Bones. In fact, The Good Shepherd is far more interested in investigating the patrician ideology that undergirds the CIA and the political maneuverings that helped it rise than it is in spy-movie clichés. And as it shows Wilson -- along with the agency -- devolve from a WWII stance of idealism into a corroding sense of paranoia, American good intentions gone awry from Vietnam to Skull & Bones veteran George W. Bush begin to shadow the movie. More directly provocative is the film's suggestion that the CIA intentionally overestimated the Soviet threat during the Cold War as a means of consolidating its own power.
And, yet, The Good Shepherd is oddly bloodless for a labor of love, which is why the movie gets so much juice out of a cameo from De Niro pal Joe Pesci as a mob boss Wilson consults about Castro.
Pesci, gray and balding, is restrained, by his standards, but still colorful. And his character's juicy exchange with the generally colorless, close-to-the-vest Wilson is the closest Wilson comes to revealing his -- and the agency's -- true worldview.
"You're the people that make the big wars," the mob boss says. "No, we make the big wars smaller," Wilson replies.
Later, Pesci's character fixes Wilson with a doubtful gaze and says, "[The Italians] have our families and the church. The Irish have the homeland. The Jews have their tradition. Even the [blacks] have their music. What do you guys have?"
"The United States of America. And the rest of you are just visiting," Wilson says, connecting the film's title to the notion of patrician entitlement and responsibility De Niro and Roth see at the heart of the CIA and the military-industrial complex.
Ultimately, The Good Shepherd is an honorable movie if not an entirely successful one. It flutters around a fascinating topic that, even at three hours, it can't quite capture. It's the kind of movie that compels you to a bookstore instead.
The Good Shepherd
Opening Friday, December 22nd