Spying is an ugly business. Beyond the fictionalized glitz of tuxedos and rocket cars is a world of patience, tedium, corruption, and distrust. The movie “The Good Shepherd” shows us the creation and rise of the CIA through the eyes of one man who learns that even with the best of intentions, it is still possible to lose your soul to espionage.
The film follows the career of high-ranking CIA official Edward Wilson, played with steely stoicism by Matt Damon. The movie begins with Wilson dealing with one of the CIA’s most famous and public blunders, the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The rest of the story is told in flashback, where we meet a fresh-faced college-aged Wilson who is introduced to the sinister world of secrets with his induction into the famous Skull and Bones Society. Wilson is an unremarkable child of privilege who stumbles into his higher calling when he is recruited by FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) to keep an eye on a college professor (Michael Gambon) who is suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Because of his successful work for the FBI and his connections through Skull and Bones, he is singled out by the military, particularly Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro), to be on alert to travel to Europe and gather intelligence for the Army as events speed toward World War II. Wilson is reluctant at first, but after a one-night stand with Clover (Angelina Jole), the sister of a fellow Bonesman, and a subsequent shotgun wedding, Wilson jumps at the chance to escape his unfortunate domestic situation.
Wilson hones his craft during the war, working with British agents like Kim Philby (Billy Crudup) and acquiring a resourceful right-hand man in Ray Brocco (John Turturro). When the war is over, a new threat immediately rises in the Soviet Union and Sullivan begins to put together a new agency with a mission of keeping the Cold War cold. He puts Wilson in charge of counterintelligence.
“The Good Shepherd” is far from a rip-roaring spy movie; go see “Casino Royale” if that’s what you’re looking for. It is instead a dense, measured look at the necessary evil that is intelligence gathering. Directed by Robert DeNiro in his first turn in the directing chair since “A Bronx Tale,” “The Good Shepherd” has a lot to say, not only about the CIA but about our current foreign policy. The subtle commentary is interesting, but what’s even more interesting is that he lets us draw our own conclusions without beating us over the head with a personal agenda (take note Hollywood, it can be done).
Wilson winds up doing some pretty horrific things and pays a heavy personal toll all in the line of duty, but it could be easily argued that all of his actions were essential to national security. More than anything, what the movie seems to be asking is how great a price are we willing to pay for our international influence and safety, and should we be asking these men in the shadows to foot the bill. The movie also makes a strong case for the argument that there is much more to life than patriotism — which might be the film’s most pointed indictment of the current administration’s “with us or against us” foreign policy.
This is a stellar cast with Damon boldly leading the way. Wilson is a man of few words and fewer emotions, but Damon avoids flatlining by keeping him dynamic enough to be subtly affected by all the covert goings-on. The rest of the cast of thousands is solid from top to bottom with other notable standouts being William Hurt as shady agency bigwig Philip Allen and Oleg Stefan as Wilson’s KGP counterpart known only as Ulysses.
One knock on the film is the running time of almost three hours, but DeNiro isn’t afraid to take his time and it is apparent that he wants to cover all his bases in what is clearly a labor of love.
December is the time for studios to trot out Oscar bait and I’m sure “The Good Shepherd” harbored those same aspirations. But it is apparently being overlooked by earning no mention on any “best of” or awards lists, which is a shame, especially in such a thin dramatic year. I guess after “Crash” won best picture last year, subtlety and nuance are out and you can’t even be considered unless your message is printed in huge capital letters across every frame of celluloid.
“The Good Shepherd” is a good movie, not only from the standpoint of filmmaking and performance but also because it gives you something to think about instead of telling you what to think about. This is a rewarding film-going experience for those who are able to stay awake for the whole thing.
“The Good Shepherd” is rated R for some violence, sexuality, and language.