“The Good Shepherd” is a fictionalized account of the beginnings of the CIA and its founders. The film hops across five continents and spans more than 30 years in the life of the (largely fictional) Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), without generating any excitement or coherency.
This ambitious attempt to dissect the spy genre is built on fascinating foundations. Still, it refuses to engage the audience’s emotions like the best spy films do. The film remains as secretive as the gray-clad characters it follows, but it wants to say something important about the bureaucratic nature of the U.S. government. Unfortunately, the film fails.
No character is more secretive than Wilson. Coming from an elitist military background, the Yale University sophomore is recruited into the legendary Skull and Bones society, a brotherhood that leads Wilson down the path of secrecy.
This theme finds its way into Wilson’s first encounter with the spy world. A suave federal agent (Alec Baldwin), straight out of pulp novels, approaches Wilson to expose his esteemed poetry professor (a terrific Michael Gambon) as a Nazi sympathizer, who uses his cane as provocatively as his words.
This challenging subtext could have moved the film into territory not yet explored in the spy genre, but instead is lost amid the morass of double-dealings and hushed conversation. The film becomes a series of theories that feel disconnected from each other. It is far too interested in covering the bases of Wilson’s life, without conveying an inkling of his feelings. This emotional distance could have been a daring and interesting viewpoint on De Niro’s part, but the film’s plodding pace keeps the audience aloof.
De Niro has a good eye for bold visuals, especially when filming interior spaces, and the cast he assembled – including William Hurt, Billy Crudup, John Turturro and Angelina Jolie – is incredible. However, he fails to use his talented cast and intense subject matter to provide interesting entertainment.
“The Good Shepherd” is a meandering film that refuses to dig beneath the surface. It accepts its characters’ secretive nature on face value. The film wants to teach the audience so much, but it learns nothing.
“The Good Shepherd” was written by Eric Roth and directed by Robert De Niro.
“The Good Shepherd” received two out of four stars.