It’s difficult not to admire the attempt of The Good Shepherd. It’s even difficult — at least in my case — not to want to like it. I certainly have no quibble with its politics or with the intentions behind it. Similarly, the fragmented nature of the presentation is adroitly handled and adds to the film’s point rather than feeling grafted on to make it cleverer. The sad fact, however, is that the final film is simply so emotionally neutered that it’s impossible to care about what happens on the screen.
Telling the story of the C.I.A. as the biography of a fictional character, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), sounds like a good idea — and as an idea it’s not bad. Wilson is more or less based on the real life James Jesus Angleton, who headed up the agency’s counterintelligence department for 20 years. The film adheres to the basic path of his story — from Yale to working for the O.S.S. in World War II to his tenure with the C.I.A. — but director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich) are less interested in creating a fictionalized portrait of one man than they are in tackling the institution of the C.I.A. Wilson/Angleton is merely an attempt to corral the story into acceptable dramatic structure and put a human face on the material. The problem is that the drama isn’t very dramatic (the big surprise about the facts behind the tape recording of how the Bay of Pigs operation was botched is evident very early on), and the human face seems scarcely human.
It’s tempting to blame this last on Matt Damon’s one-note performance, and there are certainly grounds for that blame. Damon’s handling of the character is just this side of zombified (presumably this is what De Niro wanted). Not since Jack Webb dead-panned his way through a couple million Dragnet episodes has anyone been this dull. He’s so completely detached from everyone and everything that it’s not only hard to care what happens to him, you’re left with wondering how he worked up the enthusiasm to be devoted to anything. There’s no real character arc. (Indeed, apart from hairstyle and costuming, there’s precious little difference from Damon in 1939 flashbacks and in the central 1961 story.) If the intent was to show his gradual dehumanization from Yale student to counterintelligence director, it fails, because he’s never all that human to start with.
However, this isn’t just the tone of Damon’s performance; it’s the attitude that informs the entire film. When the only likable and living character in your movie is a Nazi-sympathizing college professor (Michael Gambon) with a penchant for college boys and rough trade, you’re in trouble. No wonder Angelina Jolie as the luckless wife of the main character stalks grimly through the film.
Somewhere within the film’s ponderous 168 minutes is a scene where William Hurt and a few other middle-aged Yale alumni don grass skirts and perform “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” for the amusement of those at the annual gathering of members of the Skull and Bones secret society. When this happens you’re confronted with the herculean task of trying to maintain any level of interest in characters who actually find this entertaining rather than merely embarrassing — and if you can do that, you’re more forgiving than I am.
As an indictment of the C.I.A., the film scores fairly well, but its biggest “revelation” is buried in a single scene where a Soviet agent (Mark Ivanar, The Cutter) talks about the smoke and mirrors of Russia’s military power, charging that the C.I.A. is well aware of this, but fuels the Cold War in order to benefit America’s military industrial complex. Fair enough, but it’s hardly late-breaking news, and the material was covered in greater detail and with considerably more wit in John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama (2001) and was hinted at in Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1960) — not to mention those film’s literary antecedents. As a result, The Good Shepherd, even at its best (or most important), feels strangely out of date. De Niro probably meant to inspire outrage, but mostly succeeds in generating cynical ennui. Rated R for some violence, sexuality and language.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke