Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd is a realistic espionage thriller told through the fictional character Edward Wilson, who is partially based upon James Jesus Angelton, the founder and chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence operations from 1954 to 1974. It is a well-told tale and a technically sound film, but it suffers from both the lead character’s and the director’s emotional detachment.
The film starts with the failure of the Bay of Pigs, where it is determined that a mole gave away the plans. Wilson receives a photograph and a recording that may provide clues. The movie then begins its series of flashbacks finding Wilson attending Yale in 1939. He joins Skull and Bones, which shaped his future. At an S&B Society party in 1941 he meets Clover, his future wife, and General Bill Sullivan, who asks him to join the Office of Strategic Services.
The timelines alternate and progress forward. We witness the detective work of Wilson and the agency discovering the location where the clues were created, and Wilson’s time working in Europe and his readjustment to life back at home with a wife and son he doesn’t know anymore. The timelines and the plotlines eventually intersect, creating an intriguing conflict for Wilson.
Wilson is a very interesting character. His is a job of life and death not just for himself but many other people as he fights against the country’s enemies during WWII and the Cold War. He has to be cold and calculating, but this dedication and commitment to his job and country are a price paid not just by him, but his family as well.
Matt Damon does a great job of playing the emotionless Wilson, almost always keeping his emotions below the surface though they do break out on rare occasions. Unfortunately to the film’s detriment, the story mirrors Wilson too much because the audience is kept at an emotional distance, just like Wilson’s family. The viewer watches the events go by but there’s very little empathy because of the lack of a connection to the characters.
The film is filled with many great performances from its supporting cast. William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci and John Turturro all deliver in their brief appearances. This collection of gifted actors is rarely seen in one film and is worth viewing for their talents alone.
Angelina Jolie as Clover was the only portrayal that didn’t work. The character doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than play the moping, unhappy housewife. She started out as a free-spirited, modern thinking woman of the ‘40s but that soon changed. While her responses were believable, they were also clichéd. I had hoped to see something different, but was disappointed.
For those who enjoy spy stories, The Good Shepherd is a good adventure with compelling twists and is sure to be enjoyed. However, the disconnection from the characters keeps it from being great and might leave you as cold and indifferent as the film’s main character.