They don’t make movies like The Good Shepherd anymore. It feels like it slipped into theaters through a crack in reality, escaping from a parallel world that never experienced the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars and rather based its major blockbuster formula on the Godfather movies. But is there another alternate universe that’s showing the uncut version of The Good Shepherd? Because the one that arrived here is noticeably trimmed down, leaving the outline of a very good movie but the reality of only a decent one.
Robert DeNiro has returned to the director’s chair for a very serious, very sober look at the formation and the early days of the CIA, and he does away with almost all the politics to look at the morality of intelligence and counterintelligence. The Good Shepherd isn’t about the spycraft (although there’s some of that) or about the subversive coups or assassination attempts (although there’s some of that in there too) – it’s about the men who made the decisions on the front lines of the shadow war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and what toll that took on them, their families and their souls.
The Good Shepherd begins in the 1960s, just before the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident. Edward Wilson is one of the architects of the doomed mission; when it’s discovered that there’s a leak in CIA who blew the op, suspicion falls on him. Intercut with this is the story of Wilson and the CIA, from its beginnings in Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II until it became the Agency. Wilson’s trajectory follows the CIA’s, and he’s there for many of the major events in the Agency’s history, filtered through the prism of screenwriter Eric Roth’s fictionalization. Side by side with the founding and growth of the CIA is the story of Wilson’s sham marriage to a woman he doesn’t love but knocked up, and the son who grows up unable to ever fully connect to his father.
I went through a phase where I was seriously interested in the history of the CIA; books still line my shelves from this period – exposés and straight histories and autobiographies. While Edward Wilson is loosely based on a very real man named James Jesus Angleton, the book that The Good Shepherd most reminds me of is Norman Mailer’s astonishing CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost. The stories aren’t that similar, but the epic scope of the tales, and the way that fiction and reality are interwoven, are very similar. But Mailer’s protagonist is an engaging figure – for reasons I can’t quite understand, Roth and DeNiro have pinned their story on a man so remote that he has less dialogue than some characters who only make cameos.
The Good Shepherd would have died without Matt Damon playing Wilson. As it is, the movie often feels inert because of the main character’s reserve, but Damon – while never really letting us into the character – makes us feel that something is going on. Also, it helps that Damon, even when he’s been almost physically blunted into a squat little besuited figure as he has been here, is a familiar and warm presence. This is a good example of the movie star school of casting – we’re much more willing to sit through almost three hours of emotional unresponsiveness when the brick wall is being played by Matt Damon. DeNiro has opted to barely physically transform Damon throughout the film, and the actor mostly makes due with giving us posture clues and the like. Still, more than once I found myself unsure just where in the timeline I was, and it was because Matt Damon in his 30s looked an awful lot like Matt Damon in his 60s.
I’m being unfair to Damon, who actually does imbue Wilson with more motion beneath the surface than is immediately obvious. It’s a quiet performance, but never a mysterious one. Even without many lines we always know what Wilson is thinking, and when he’s capable of it, what he’s feeling. At least we know it if we’re paying attention – and paying attention is what this film is all about. I don’t believe I have seen a major motion picture in the last decade or so that has demanded so much from an audience. The Good Shepherd doesn’t set up its sociopolitical conflicts so much as it just presents them. You don’t have to understand the CIA’s involvement in South America to get this movie, but it helps. Eric Roth’s script feels completely literary – The Good Shepherd is often more novelistic than it is cinematic.
Angelina Jolie, who plays the wife, does get the benefit of old age makeup, but she doesn’t get the benefit of a fully fleshed out role. I feel like there’s more of her on a cutting room floor somewhere, although I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing – Jolie doesn’t belong in period pieces as she has a completely modern energy. She’s also pushed to the edges not only of Wilson’s life – his real passion is for his work – but to the movie. The edges of this film aren’t a bad place to be, though, as it’s filled with fine actors giving tremendous performances. DeNiro appears briefly as one of the architects of the Agency, a character seemingly modeled on the legendary “Wild Bill” Donovan. Billy Crudup and Michael Gambon are British spies, but if I tell you who they’re based on it ruins all the fun. And Joe Pesci briefly comes out of retirement for a turn as a Mob boss working with the CIA – he’s only on screen for a few brief minutes, but he brings an energy that the rest of the movie had been sorely lacking.
One of the main problems with The Good Shepherd is that there’s almost no plot. The framing device of the mole search is completely lackluster, and rarely seems actually connected to the flashbacks. The final answer is strong, but never emotionally satisfying, mainly because the whole film has kept a WASPish reserve. The wispy throughline of the flashbacks, which involve Wilson’s opposite number in the KGB, a man known as Ulysses, was enough to keep me interested, but many will wonder where the film’s forward momentum has gone.
I really liked The Good Shepherd. I was also very frustrated by it. For every scene that I liked, there was another that felt incomplete. The perfect example comes with John Turturro’s character of Ray Brocco, Wilson’s quick-fisted assistant. While Wilson is a prep school Ivy Leaguer who will play all the dirty tricks in the book on someone, he won’t get his hands dirty. Brocco is an obviously lower class guy who is happy to throw punches and torture potential double agents. The two characters make great counterpoints, and it’s obvious that part of the reason the movie has Brocco is that he brings an energy and immediateness to the story that Wilson can’t. Yet Brocco feels completely truncated, and it’s hard not to imagine that many of his scenes are on that cutting room floor next to Jolie’s.
For all the frustration, for all the missed opportunities, The Good Shepherd is still intriguing. The film’s length and pace never make it unwatchable, and it’s like a hearty meal that you’ll digest for hours afterwards. The tragedy of The Good Shepherd is that it’s too brainy for its own good; you’re engaged on an intellectual level but the crowds come out for the emotional stuff. This movie was never going to be a big hit, so Universal should have left it at its original length – the few people who appreciate this film at the current running time would probably love a longer, more detailed version.