Robert DeNiro is considered by many to be one of the finest actors working in film. Naturally, after playing the number of diverse, challenging roles he has brought to the big screen, he is looking for new challenges. As someone working in film, one of those challenges is directing. Rather than play it safe, DeNiro takes on the complex tale of the birth of the CIA in “The Good Shepherd”.
April, 1961. The Bay of Pigs is a disaster and Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) returns to Washington, DC as President Kennedy prepares to do some damage control and avert World War III. As he contemplates how the leak may have occurred, he begins to think back to his college days at Yale. Recruited into the secret Skull & Bones society, Edward soon becomes a full fledged member, trying to remain loyal to his fraternity brothers. At one of the society’s retreats, he meets Clover (Angelina Jolie), the sister of his friend, John Russell (Gabriel Macht), the son of a Senator (Keir Dullea), who are also members of the society. Clover throws herself at Edward and a couple of weeks later, she announces she is pregnant and she and Edward are soon married. As World War II looms, Edward is approached by General Sullivan (Robert DeNiro), who wants a select group of men to travel to Europe to perform counter intelligence. After they return, Edward meets his son and the counter intelligence operations continue, becoming the basis of the Central Intelligence Agency, under the direction of Phillip Allen (William Hurt). Throughout his life, Edward faces challenges to his family life, patriotism and loyalty.
“The Good Shepherd” is a difficult thing to discuss. At over 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film covers a lot of territory and presents a lot of detail and both director DeNiro and writer Eric Roth (“Munich”, “Ali“, “The Insider”, “Forrest Gump”) have done a great job of keeping all of this information accessible and easy to follow. You never feel as though you are drowning in story, details or characters, and there are many I didn’t even mention.
Matt Damon’s performance as Edward is interesting. Extremely modulated, he almost never changes the tone of his voice. This does two things; on the one hand, it perfectly conveys his constant unease with his role in society and what he does but on the other hand, it makes his performance slightly boring. You want Damon to speak up, yell, cry, and do something other than stare impassively at someone else. I get that he is playing a spy, and is supposed to remain very aloof, but he is also playing a human. The few times he does yell or shout light up the screen and show us the potential of this character. I understand why it didn’t happen more, but if it had, the character would have gone from just good to near great.
Anjelina Jolie plays Clover, or Margaret, the precocious daughter of a US Senator (Keir Dullea). From the moment we first meet her, she throws herself at Edward in a determined effort to snare him. As the story evolves, they are soon married and Edward is off to War, leaving her to give birth to their son alone. Later in the film, she complains about being left alone, about how he never loved her, etc. Her role resembles the old fashioned ‘vamp’ type of role. I recently saw some ‘Pre Code’ films made by Hollywood in the early 30s. In these films, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow and the like, play ‘upwardly mobile’ women determined to sleep their way to the top. In “The Good Shepherd”, Jolie’s Margaret seems determined to mate with Edward. If this is, in fact, the case, we never really learn why.
The film is filled with a veritable who’s who of memorable character actors. Michael Gambon plays one of Edward’s Yale professors, who may have a thing for young men. Alec Baldwin plays Sam Murach, a member of the FBI who initially approaches Edward with an assignment. Billy Crudup plays Arch Cummings, a British spy who helps train Edward. William Hurt plays Phillip Allen, the man who helps found the CIA and guide the organization in its first few years. Timothy Hutton, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and John Turtorro also pop up as various pieces of the puzzle. Some of these supporting characters are more involving and more interesting than others; Gambon stands out as an integral part of the story. As a poetry professor, guiding Edward in his thesis, he makes a pass at Edward who rejects. But this professor plays an important part in the overall story and finding out how he fits in is part of the fun. Alec Baldwin pops up repeatedly as sort of a guardian angel for Edward, guiding him towards the truth. John Turturro plays Edward’s assistant, working with him through the decades as they work through one crisis after another. Other characters pop up briefly and then disappear. Joe Pesci plays a gangster ousted from Cuba when Castro takes over. Edward turns to him for help and guidance before the Bay of Pigs operation. The role is interesting, but way too brief and more of a distraction than anything. Oh, look. It’s Joe Pesci.
“The Good Shepherd” works best when it concentrates on the mechanics of the story, showing us how this agency was created, some of the activities it participated in, the like. From the moment Edward enters Yale, he seems destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a member of the super secretive “Skull and Bones” society. We watch as Edward participates in the initiation and then his first interaction with Murach (Baldwin), in 1939. Murach wants him to give him a list of people who may be Nazi sympathizers. Edward’s patriotism is never at question, so he does what he needs to do. Then, General Sullivan (DeNiro), also a member of “Skull and Bones”, asks him to do counter intelligence work in London during World War II. There, he works with Cummings (Crudup) and others to learn about their methods and provide any help he can. Here, he begins a long and trusting relationship with his assistant (Turturro). Upon his return home, Sullivan asks him to continue the work with the new CIA, which will be headed by another member of “Skull and Bones”, Philip Allen (Hurt). The film goes to great lengths to successfully show us the wheeling – dealing that went on behind the scenes during the formation of this agency.
Then the story shifts and we start to watch some of the operations they were involved in. These are presented as vignettes, of a sort, and they all lead to Castro and the Bay of Pigs. DeNiro and Roth use these events to illustrate the long term problems the CIA and other agencies of its type create for themselves and us. As the CIA becomes more involved in foreign governments, they sometimes make the wrong decisions, which proves troublesome to our country at later points.
The last act of the film, detailing the Bay of Pigs operation and the resulting fiasco it creates, also involves Edward and Margaret’s son, Edward Junior (Eddie Redmayne Jr.), now a young man who is also a part of the CIA. Throughout the film, as Edward steps back into the lives of his wife and son, we watch the boy grow up, insecure, always looking for his father’s approval. As a member of the CIA, he is no different. This part of the story was the least successful simply because I found the performance by Redmayne to be fairly one note as well. In one scene, his expression is blank. In the next, he is mad at his dad. In another, another argument. In yet another, the blank expression returns. It is also difficult to believe Damon and Jolie’s characters would father a grown son as they look pretty much the same throughout. The one concession to age seems to be a little bit of powder on Jolie’s face and she appears to be tired. But they don’t really age so it is startling to watch this character grow up as they stay relatively the same age.
DeNiro is clearly a talented director, and he is working with a story he has a great deal of interest in. It is also nice to see a film depict such a secretive organization ‘warts and all’. What the film shows doesn’t appear to be sugar coated; we see the good and the bad. And that’s a good thing. But as an actor, it seems like he would be able to realize the majority of the performances in the film are lifeless and cold. The most emotional characters are either the least mature, or the most harassed, as two Russian spies turn on the emotions as they plea for their life.
“The Good Shepherd” is worth your time, and it will take a lot of it, but it will be stingy in the rewards. You will learn a lot about the operations, but little about the people behind the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency.