[I'm in Canmag's Website, stealing their pics.]
It's been a few days since I actually saw THE GOOD SHEPHERD, and though I've wanted to review it (I've recently discarded my policy of reviewing every film I see theatrically), it's hard to get started. An incredibly low-key film detailing the rise of the CIA through the eyes of a fictional founding member, Robert DeNiro's third film as director (including an uncredited contribution to THE SCORE) has a very novelistic quality to it, being more character driven than anything else, and leaping from time to time with the unreliability of your average bit of postmodern litfic (I need to start reviewing books here, BTW. Bug me about that later.) This most cynical of spy dramas is not the easiest film to watch, but it is affecting in its subtle way.
The protagonist of the film is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a bright young man who goes to Yale, becomes a member of the legendary Skull & Bones society, and is approached by a man named Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin), apparently a government agent, who assigns him to investigate the members of a German cultural society which appears to be a Nazi front (this being a short time prior to American entry into WWII). After succeeding in this, he is recruited into the OSS, and after impregnating and subsequently marrying socialite Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie) (and thus being forced to desert his true love, a deaf girl named Laura played by Tammy Blanchard), is sent to London to work with British Intelligence in the midst of the Blitz. After the war, he stays in Europe to round up Nazi scientists, and runs up against his Soviet counterpart, a man called Ulysses (Oleg Stefan). He returns home to find his son a stranger and his wife growing slowly distant, but his duties aren't over, as General Bill Sullivan (DeNiro) recruits him into a new Cold War intelligence organization known as the CIA. Things, inevitably, go wrong; the actual beginning of the film is the Agency's disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and as the story unfolds we continually flash forward to the aftermath, as Wilson and others attempt to find out just who leaked their operation to the enemy, and the answer inextricably becomes bound up in the mistakes he has made through his life.
The personal and the political are never very far from each other in this film; as a central figure in the nascent CIA, Wilson could be said to embody the spirit of the organization, representing not the utilitarian gathering of intelligence but the keeping and finding of secrets for their own sake. (An early scene from Yale shows Wilson in drag as Buttercup in the college production of the HMS PINAFORE- deceptive even as a lark.) He falls into his marriage at a Skull & Bones-exclusive retreat, and perhaps had he made his prior relationship with Laura more well-known, Margaret would not have made a pass at him (resulting, ironically, in a child he doesn't even see being born.) At heart, Skull & Bones itself is built on secrets (as portrayed here- the real society's basic credo, if it even has one, is still a mystery), and when asked to confide a deep secret to the group, Edward talks about the time his father committed suicide, and he, a child, hid the note and told everyone that it was an accident. Not that he's alone in keeping secrets and not trusting people; he's drawn so quickly into the world of espionage that he is all but surrounded by people he can't trust. That this irreparably damages the one "normal" relationship he has is inevitable, but he does little to prevent the calamity that follows.
Matt Damon does an excellent job making such an ultimately ineffectual protagonist strangely compelling. He's not passive, so much as caught up in larger things. The decisions he makes are simple, timid, and understandable. There are a number of good performances here, as expected from a film directed by an actor; Michael Gambon has some excellent scenes as Wilson's British supervisor, John Tuturro is much larger and more threatening than I remember him as Wilson's assistant and enforcer, William Hurt is as much William Hurt as he has ever been, and Angelina Jolie reminds us that she can project things other than sheer hotness when necessary.
There's a bit of current events commentary mixed in all this, as there seems to be in any modern film with more narrative complexity than SNAKES ON A PLANE. The CIA is basically shown as an organization that outgrew its necessity, and actively worked to sustain its power solely for the sake of keeping it. It overestimated the Soviet threat, shut out civilian oversight, and allowed itself to become more important than it was originally. Though the CIA has more recently been most known for its failures of intelligence as regards 9/11 and the situation in pre-war Iraq, leading to calls for more power to American intelligence services, the film suggests that this is an organization that abuses the powers it is given. Whether or not one agrees, it's a case well-made.
The film, though it does an admirable job of staying easy to follow even as it jumps back and forth, seems to leave a few plot bits hanging in the end. They're mostly minor, but it gave me the feeling that the film had been adapted from a book, and it surprised me to learn that Eric Roth apparently had written an original screenplay. In the end it all just sort of gradually winds down, though the final scene is appropriate. It's almost appropriate to the tone that the story finishes anticlimactically, but I was left wanting just a little more.
This is a difficult film to love, but there is much to admire in it. It intends to disturb, to unsettle, to leave the viewer with troubling questions, and I have to say it succeeds. It's a chilling experience, worth going through once.
And no, I'm not entirely sure what the title means either.