The Good Shepherd is a moody epic on the early years of the Central Intelligence Agency. On paper the project looks like a perfect film with so much intriguing history and an all star cast to boot, The Godfather of 2006. But the admirable sense of period detail film gets bogged down in routine melodrama and elliptical story telling.
Robert De Niro deserves credit for seeing the film through to completion, a passion project he pursued for years. De Niro’s restrained direction could’ve used more of the energy of his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese. Almost three hours long, The Good Shepherd gets lost in the foggy morass of the history it attempts to unravel.
Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson in a glacial performance. A Waspy poetry student at Yale who gets tapped to join the elite Skull and Bones Club, the society is revealed to be a recruitment tool for the intelligence services. With The Second World War about to engulf America, Edward is recruited by the FBI to spy on a professor they suspect of spying for Germany. Impressed with his work, Edward earns a top spot in the O.S.S., the forerunner to the CIA.
Eric Roth’s script never manages to humanize Edward, he’s too much of a cipher. In college he meets a kind deaf women and they almost marry until Edward is “matched” up with the sister of a friend played by a bored Angelina Jolie. Much of the story deals with Edward’s troubled relationship with his son, a plot point that’s more forced than dramatic.
With the Cold War on, Edward earns a top spot in the CIA. He manages operations overseas in an obsessive quest to thwart the Soviets at every corner in the world. All leads to the infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion to usurp Fidel Castro in 1961, still a definitive moment in the Cold War.
There are some nice performances. William Hurt personifies establishment as Allen Dulles. Joe Pesci appears briefly as an Italian mobster recruited by the CIA. De Niro appears in a few scenes as O.S.S. founder William Donovan.
There’s a great film somewhere in the haze of all this history. The Good Shepherd is worth a look for anyone interested in Cold War history, maybe leading them to read a few books, which might make for a more worthwhile experience. In the current entertainment environment the material covered in The Good Shepherd would work much better as a mini-series on Netflix.