Serious and thoughtful, smoothly textured and deliberately paced, The Good Shepherd is a very different type of spy movie from Matt Damon’s Bourne pictures, which are all briskness and nervous kinetic energy, with barely a meaningful thought in their heads. This new film, written by Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump) and directed by Robert De Niro, is about the origins and history of the CIA, covering the years 1939-1961 in the life of one important agent, from college right through to his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. In fact, it could occasionally use more kinetic energy of some sort (though the Bourne type of pinball pacing wouldn’t work here), but it’s a respectable piece of work, never less than interesting – yet rarely generating the intensity or sparks one hopes for based on the fine opening scenes.
Well, not the very first scenes, which establish what will turn out to be a too-contrived spy mystery concerning the Bay of Pigs operation. That material, puzzling and murky enough to be annoying at first, alternates with flashbacks to Yale in 1939, where Edward Wilson (Damon), a poetry student, gets tapped for membership first by the Skull and Bones secret society, and then by government spies. We learn that his naval officer father was a suicide amid rumors of treason. Edward is recruited to spy on one of his professors, and then eventually to go to London as part of a new military intelligence organization, the OSS.
This part of the story fascinates, draws you right in to both the mechanics of spying and the way Edward’s personality is being formed and changed. It may actually be unfair to complain that the intrigue generated in the first hour sets you up for a later letdown. It’s probably inevitable that the payoff won’t match our expectations. But at least at first, The Good Shepherd is bracingly reminiscent of Graham Greene, if far less subtle. As we realize that many of the things required of Edward will be horrendous, morally indefensible – and as he realizes it too – the movie casts a real, if too brief, spell.
Part of the problem is the amount of time spent on Edward’s personal life: his blossoming romance with a young deaf woman (Tammy Blanchard) and his ambivalent and potentially disastrous flirtation with a classmate’s sister – and senator’s daughter (Angelina Jolie). At first the light romance contrasts pleasingly with the darkening spy plot.
There’s also a disquieting, not entirely defined aura of emotional and sexual repression in Edward’s interactions both with women and with his fellow spies. But his life at home eventually takes on the arc of a rather dreary soap opera, and begins to drag down the rest of the story – with at least one too many heavily ironic juxtapositions: sentimental songs underscore The Hard Truth of what Edward does for a living, and the destruction it is bringing to his life and his family.
The best sections of the movie end with World War II. Once we have entered the Cold War, both the spy and personal parts of the plot begin to seem somewhat airless and preordained – not to mention often skimpy, lacking in nuance or detail, shallow. (There is one brilliant exception, when a dubious Russian defector, given LSD as a “truth serum,” unnerves the CIA agents by telling them the Soviets are not even a real threat; this scene is far less routine than the rest of the second half.) The model here may be John le Carre, but the results fall short. Nonetheless, the film has an indispensable secret weapon, and his name is Matt Damon.
Damon is splendid in a very challenging role. Edward’s most notable characteristic is his stony silence, expressionless, inscrutable. But Damon makes this silence mean many things: the bafflement of a shy youth encountering sex and love, the appalled realization of just how brutal and awful spying can be, the scary determination of a master adversary. He fights gamely against the soapy sludge of the later scenes, and he is genuinely frightening in a Michael Corleone-like episode of icy, heartless betrayal at the film’s climax (though the script hasn’t earned that kind of payoff, and the plot surrounding the scene is way too contrived). It’s a remarkable performance, convincingly taking us from initial innocence to final corruption (even if Edward still wants to believe his honor is intact). Matt Damon holds the movie together and flies it home.
The large supporting cast is often excellent, with the standouts being Michael Gambon as Edward’s mysterious poetry professor, Tammy Blanchard as the heartbreaking first girlfriend, and Oleg Stefan as a Russian spy code-named Ulysses. Director De Niro has a couple of effective scenes as a character based on the OSS/CIA’s founding father Bill Donovan. But as a fictionalized Kim Philby, the usually marvelous Billy Crudup is hampered by a fey British accent that fits him uncomfortably. And while Angelina Jolie and Eddie Redmayne give their valiant best as Edward’s wife and son, their unconvincing roles ultimately defeat them.
The physical production of The Good Shepherd is of a very high caliber. Robert Richardson is a peerless cinematographer, and the movie often looks just stunning, both in shadowy rooms with dramatic, noirish lighting and in vivid exteriors set on several continents. The costumes (Ann Roth) and production design (by Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, who also did Seabiscuit and Catch Me If You Can) take us convincingly through the various eras and settings. (Let’s also give some credit to whoever aptly decided to fit Matt Damon with perhaps the least flattering pair of eyeglasses in the history of the cinema; this is not the right movie for a sexy, glamorous spy.) But the gloomy and beautiful musical score, by Bruce Fowler and Marcelo Zarvos, is far too plentiful, overemphasizing every emotional moment and leaving very little room for a viewer to breathe, much less respond spontaneously.
Considering that this is only the second film Robert De Niro has directed (and that it has been 13 years since the first), his storytelling ability and skill with actors is impressive. And still it’s almost impossible not to imagine what Martin Scorsese or Alfred Hitchcock (or Paul Greengrass, who directed the second Bourne movie, brilliantly, as well as this year’s finest film, United 93) might have done with the same material. With the touch of a film artist, the audience might feel real terror, might gasp with laughter at some perverse, daring bits of business, and might be whisked more confidently past the soap and contrivance; without it we have to settle for an interesting, flawed story well told – not the worst of compromises.