The Good Shepherd

Espionage is rarely as exciting as depicted in James Bond movies. Most of it is closely examining aerial photos or translating and analyzing foreign news or intercepted dispatches. There are field agents who work in foreign capitals but even that job mostly consists of threatening, bribing, or otherwise cajoling some poor schmuck into betraying his country. Only rarely do you get a chance to blow something up, bed an exotic vixen, or chase someone at high speeds through the Italian Alps.

The Good Shepherd is the story of American espionage from before World War II through the founding of the CIA, to the Bay of Pigs. This tale is told through the eyes of Edward Wilson, played by Matt Damon. Wilson is a buttoned down Yale man, who in spite of his natural reticence, makes some spectacular contacts by joining the Skull and Bones society. Membership in this high powered boys club makes many of the country’s leaders his brothers and it proves he can keep a secret. This coupled with a paranoid intelligence makes Wilson a perfect spy.

Director Robert DiNiro and screenwriter Eric Roth usher us into a closed privileged society of men (and they are all men) who secretly plot the courses of nations behind the closed doors of their clubs. You really get the feel of people who are accustomed to money and power, where recruitment into the dirty field of espionage is done by older men who put their arms around your shoulders and lead you away from the crowd to tell you about an opportunity he thinks you’ll appreciate.

The performances in The Good Shepherd are constrained but taut. Only Angelina Jolie, as Edward’s aggrieved wife, is allowed to cut loose and only in one scene. This is a two and a half hour movie. Most of it is dialog. All the action takes place off stage. But that great length of time passes quickly so compelling are the performances and the plot.

Other critics have mentioned that the plot is too convoluted to follow but I didn’t think so. It’s sprawling and epic and there are probably a few loose ends, but basically, if you pay attention you’ll get it.

Matt Damon turns in another great performance as the lead. Jolie shines as his wife. Billy Crudup’s english accent is pretty good as a Kim Philby type mole in MI 6. John Turturro is underused as Ray Bracco, Wilson’s secretary and eventually strong arm. It’s an all star cast and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch.

DiNiro and Roth can’t resist making apolitical comment or two, both about the cold war and more indirectly about our current politics. This many ruin the film for some but not me.

I love the James Bond school of action films but The Good Shepherd, which is closer to John LeCarre than Ian Fleming is an important film and one of the best movies of the year.


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January 2007
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