From the DVR: The Good Shepherd (2006)


The 2006 film The Good Shepherd is a fictionalized take on how the Central Intelligence Agency came to be, using the failed Bay of Pigs invasion as the starting point of its narrative.  Senior counterintelligence agent Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) learns that the operation was compromised by a leak inside the agency, and his investigation into the matter begins with an envelope (containing a reel-to-reel audiotape and photograph) dropped off at his home by an anonymous individual.

Portrait of the spook as a young man: Edward Wilson (based on real-life CIA veterans James Angleton and Richard Bissell), as played by Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd (2006).

As Wilson and his fellow agents delve into the package’s contents and painstakingly examine its clues, the story flashes back-and-forth to his humble beginnings: a student at Yale in 1939, Edward is chosen for the university’s secret society, Skull and Bones.  As a Bonesman, Wilson crosses paths with FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin), who informs him that that his poetry professor (Michael Gambon) is involved with a group of Nazi sympathizers…and asks for his help in exposing the instructor.  This bit of domestic espionage starts Edward on his future career; he’s later asked by General William Sullivan (Robert De Niro) to enlist in the O.S.S., the intelligence service that operated during WW2.  When the war is over, Sullivan prevails upon Wilson to become a part of post-war spookery, a.k.a. the C.I.A.

Life in The Agency proves to be a challenging one for our protagonist; before getting his orders to report in London during the war, Edward marries Margaret “Clover” Russell (Angelina Jolie), the daughter of U.S. Senator John Russell (Keir Dullea), after a one-night stand leaves her great with child.  (His determination to do the right thing put the brakes on an affair with the woman he really loves, a deaf girl named Laura [Tammy Blanchard].)  The long-distance relationship results in adulterous affairs for both Edward and Clover, and when their son Edward, Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) grows to adulthood he starts down the same career path as his father, wanting to join The Agency.

Robert DeNiro directing Angelina Jolie and Damon in The Good Shepherd

We know Robert De Niro as one of the premier motion picture actors of his generation (a seven-time Oscar nominee, winning trophies for The Godfather, Part II {1974—Best Supporting Actor] and Raging Bull [1980—Best Actor]), but he’s also been not-too-shabby behind the camera, beginning with 1993’s A Bronx Tale.  (De Niro also plays a small role in Bronx, as the bus driver father of a young man [Lillo Brancato] who falls under the spell of a charismatic gangster [Chazz Palminteri].)  The Good Shepherd was a “pet project” that De Niro would work on for close to a decade, though the film’s concept had originally been developed in 1994 by writer Eric Roth for director Francis Ford Coppola (Roth was inspired by Norman Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost, which he tried to adapt as a movie).  Coppola later abandoned the project, and the movie that ultimately became Shepherd passed through a few more hands (including John Frankenheimer, who died in 2002 during pre-production) before De Niro took the project to Universal Pictures with James G. Robinson and Jane Rosenthal.

posterCoppola passed on the movie because he couldn’t relate to Shepherd’s characters’ lack of emotion (he still retains an executive producer credit, though)…and for me, this is why I have reservations about the film.  Granted, you’d expect individuals who lie and cheat for a living to be a dispassionate lot, but because director De Niro and writer Roth keep the movie’s characters so emotionally distant it becomes nearly impossible to become involved in their situations.  We never really learn why Edward Wilson was drawn to intelligence work (the suggestion is that he was recruited as a direct result of his induction into Skull and Bones) nor what makes him tick (he’s a true enigma), and for those of us not unopposed to smashing the CIA into a billion pieces (as President John F. Kennedy purportedly wanted to do) Shepherd’s lengthy-running time (167 minutes) seems more like a sentence than a movie.  (Interestingly, Damon used Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert in the Coppola-directed The Conversation [1974] as inspiration for his character…though Conversation is clearly the superior film in that it documents how a man is losing his humanity…as opposed to Edward Wilson, who has very little to speak of from the start.)

Joe Pesci, who’s also appeared with De Niro in such films as Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995).

The Good Shepherd doesn’t skimp on the star wattage, that’s for certain.  In addition to the folks named above, the film also features performances from Billy Crudup (as a British agent loosely based on Kim Philby, so you know where that’s headed), William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, John Turturro, and Joe Pesci—who had not made a movie since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4.  (Pesci plays a mobster based on Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante, Jr.)  Of the performers, I really enjoyed Blanchard’s turn as Laura (the scenes she has with Damon are among the most interesting in the movie, showing that his character isn’t a complete automaton) and of course, Turturro is always good (though his role, based on real-life C.I.A. deputy Raymond Rocca, is a brief one).  Curiously, while Jolie’s Clover convincingly ages from flighty society deb to bitter divorcee, Damon’s Wilson looks the same as he did when he was at Yale; he must have sampled some experimental fountain-of-youth serum the Agency cooked up in their lab.  (You do get to see him play “Buttercup” from H.M.S. Pinafore in a brief scene if you’re amused by that sort of thing.)

Jolie’s character’s nickname, “Clover,” was purportedly the handle of the wife of real-life CIA head Allen Dulles.

Director De Niro gets points for doing up a spy movie that eschews car chases and gratuitous violence (though he’s not completely home free on that score, as witnessed in a difficult-to-watch scene where Turturro works over a Russian agent); it’s most reminiscent of Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), one of several films he watched when preparing The Good ShepherdShepherd’s overlength (they really should have trimmed this puppy) and absence of engaging characters are the movie’s unfortunate weaknesses—Peter Travers noted “It’s tough to slog through a movie that has no pulse,” and I think he’s spot-on on that score.  I grabbed this one during our Showtime freeview, so if your cable or satellite company provides you with one, save yourself the cost of a rental and watch it there.

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