|The Good Shepherd (2006)
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, John Turturro, Robert DeNiro, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Gabriel Macht, Joe Pesci
Director: Robert DeNiro
“The Good Shepherd,” Robert DeNiro’s pet project about the birth of the CIA, surely deserves an award for the sheer amount of A-list talent involved, but as many would tell you, it takes a lot more to make a great film. The potential is certainly there, and if reworked as a straight whodunit, the film would have truly been fascinating, but it’s just too long for its own good, especially when the film isn’t saying anything of particular importance most of the time. Sure, the script is really sharp in some places, but it suffers from a complete lack of rhythm, and while the flip-flopping of chronology has often been useful in telling stories that eclipse long periods of time, in the case of DeNiro’s sweeping epic about the hush-hush world of the CIA, it only makes things worse.
Loosely based on real-life CIA co-founder James “Jesus” Angleton, the film tells the story of fictional character Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a CIA agent under suspicion of compromising the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion. Groomed for the spy business since his days as a Yale graduate, Wilson is recruited by “Wild Bill” Sullivan (DeNiro) – through his involvement with the Skull and Bones secret society (a group that counts our very own President George W. Bush as a member) – to play a seminal role in FDR’s new-fangled Office of Strategic Services, which was formed as a wartime intelligence agency and served as the forerunner of the CIA.
Married to a woman (Angelina Jolie) simply because she’s having his child, Wilson doesn’t seem too concerned with leaving the country for six years to help bring down the Nazis, and when he returns, his marriage has all but faded. Wilson still manages to form a bond with his son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), who follows in his father’s footsteps and eventually joins the agency at the height of the Cold War, but even that relationship contains only a certain level of trust. Wilson has built a career around furtive phone calls, shadowy exchanges and the overall deceit of others, and with so many double-agents to keep straight, the only man that he trusts is himself.
Written by Eric Roth (“Munich,” “Forrest Gump”), the film serves as a great history lesson for those interested in the origins of the CIA, but as the story continues to bounce back and forth between the past and the present, it loses much of the suspense that the main story would have possessed were it given the proper treatment. Instead, the audience is forced to watch boring stories about Wilson’s home life that have little or no effect on the investigation at hand. In addition, there’s not a single character that the audience can identify with. Damon’s protagonist is perhaps the least likeable character in the entire film, and yet we’re supposed to follow him around for nearly three hours as he proves his stoic dedication for his country? No thanks.
Equally disturbing is the way in which Damon doesn’t seem to age throughout the entire film. Whether he’s 20-years-old or 42 (which, by the way, is a complete joke), the boyish actor looks the same either way. DeNiro has simply given him thicker-rimmed glasses to wear in his older age, while the rest of the actors are actually given discernible changes. Jolie’s emotionally-trodden wife is sporting some very unattractive bags during the present day (while she’s made to look remarkably youthful in flashbacks), DeNiro’s character continues to deteriorate physically, and even Alec Baldwin’s G-Man (who only appears in a few scenes) displays a nasty scar in his future meetings with Wilson.Despite some of these more aesthetic blunders, DeNiro’s flick features one of the best casts of the year. Along with the aforementioned lot, the film also stars William Hurt, John Turturro and Michael Gambon in great supporting turns, while DeNiro himself has managed to lure his old friend, Joe Pesci, back for a bit role. It’s a wonderful cameo by a sorely missed actor, and we can only hope that this will spark some sort of comeback. As stated before, however, it doesn’t really matter how talented your cast is if the film is a complete mess, and while “The Good Shepherd” certainly displays a lot promise (I’d be interested to see DeNiro’s director’s cut, which is rumored to be 30 minutes longer), there’s absolutely nothing that makes it incredibly significant in its current form.