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The Good Shepherd (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd


Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Eddie Redmayne, John Turturro, Oleg Stefan, Martina Gedeck, Keir Dullea, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro.

Screenplay by Eric Roth.

Directed by Robert De Niro.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  167 minutes.  Rated R.

Unfortunately, the most coherent thing which we find out from The Good Shepherd is that the Central Intelligence Agency was apparently founded by a bunch of uptight, repressed WASPs.

The film bounces back and forth in time — covering the years from right before the US entrance into World War II to the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson (based loosely on CIA pioneer James Jesus Angelton) a young poet and member of a secret society who is recruited to join an early World War II espionage mission.

As far as we can tell all he has to qualify him for the position is a complete ability to compartmentalize his emotions and not betray (or perhaps even feel?) much of anything.  He has pretty much the same noncommittal poker face whether he is learning of a friend’s death, capturing a mole, having a woman he had a foolish affair with wiped out, realizing his son has become a political pawn or watching a suspect tortured.

In the meantime, spooks and moles pop up and disappear for long stretches of time.  There are so many characters, so many lies and so many agendas being worked here that you really need a scorecard to keep up.  At different points Wilson seems almost supernaturally observant and oddly naive and trusting.

The film has a wonderful look and feel for its era; yet some things seem just wrong for the time periods.  For example, Angelina Jolie’s predatory seduction of Wilson — forcing them into decades of a loveless marriage — seems shockingly forward for a woman in the early 1940s.  The audience can see Angelina doing it; it’s just a lot harder to picture the character being so sexually forward, particularly when we see how cold their relationship becomes soon afterwards.

Wilson states late in the film that he always wanted to be there for his slightly weak and nervous son (Eddie Redmayne) due to his own childhood trauma — finding his own father (Timothy Hutton) after he had committed suicide.  Wilson spends decades covering for his son and trying to protect him.  This is certainly understandable as a father — but we never really see the two of them relate in any truly substantial way.  Their relationship seems strained and unsure.  We never really see that Wilson cares that deeply for him — though except for a few violent and uncharacteristic bursts of emotion in this film we never get the feeling he cares much about anything.

Wilson seems the perfect bureaucrat — detached, mannered, unfeeling and above all almost always in control — which may make him an asset as a spy but it makes him a chore as a character.  It’s hard to care what happens to him, because he almost never allows you to see him caring himself.  He is an enigma.

The Good Shepherd is beautifully made and stuffed full of plot, and yet it is stately to the point of distraction.  Like its protagonist, it is quiet, questing, cold and completely unable to express or even feel emotions. Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd takes over twenty years of espionage, lies, torture, misdirection, murder, skullduggery and back-alley agreements and makes it just seem dull.  (12/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 24, 2007.

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