Thought-Provoking, but Flawed Movie About the CIA
Directed by Robert De Niro, The Good Shepherd (2006) is an intricate, noirish character study about the origins and early years of the CIA. Matt Damon gives a memorable performance in the lead role, and he is ably supported by a large cast that includes William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, John Turturro, Billy Crudup and Michael Gambon. This is a lengthy, deliberately paced film that appeals more to the intellect than to the emotions.
The protagonist is the fictional Edward Wilson (Damon), who in 1939 is a Yale student interested in poetry and theater. But he joins the secretive Skull and Bones society, does World War II duty in the covert Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and in 1947 becomes one of the founders of the CIA. The movie follows Wilson through the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He comes across as intelligent and dedicated, but humorless, chilly and unlikable.
The film is at its best when focusing on Wilson at work, but it is less successful in depicting his personal life. Much of the dialogue in the domestic scenes is painfully expository. An important part of the story is about the protagonist's unhappy marriage to a senator's daughter portrayed by a miscast Angelina Jolie. Possibly the role was unplayable as written anyway, but it's particularly difficult to accept Jolie as a patrician, stay-at-home wife in the 1940s and '50s. However, there is resonance in the relationship between Wilson and his son.
A Peculiar, but Fascinating Central Character
Matt Damon perfectly captures Edward Wilson, a complex character who sings "I'm Called Little Buttercup" from H.M.S. Pinafore as a callow college student, but later transforms himself into the steely head of special ops at CIA. Wilson possesses all the qualities of an exceptional intelligence officer as enumerated by an MI6 agent in London: "you have to have a steady mind, an unswerving sense of belief in what you're doing, and be a hopeless romantic."
The film portrays the organizational culture of the early CIA as being brought over from Yale's Skull and Bones society. When the American peacetime foreign intelligence agency is established in 1947, the top three jobs go to Bonesmen. These men are blue-blooded WASPs with a sense of entitlement. This is dramatized in the scene where a Mafia don (Joe Pesci) asserts that the Italians have their families and the Church, the Irish have their homeland, the Jews their tradition and the blacks their music, and he asks Wilson what his people have. Wilson's answer: "The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting."
The movie's title comes from John 10:11, where Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." Wilson does sacrifice himself as he struggles to do his job as he sees it, but from the viewer's perspective, the film's title seems ironic.
An Intriguing Film for Viewers Who Like Cerebral Movies
The Good Shepherd is a richly detailed, demanding and uncompromising spy film with little suspense or action. The central character moves through a dreary, shadowy world where no one can be trusted. One of the movie's strengths is that the viewer is made to share the protagonist's lack of certainty about exactly what is going on.
For example, consider the sequence where Wilson attends a play and his college sweetheart Laura (Tammy Blanchard) turns up in the audience. It's a stretch to believe that a top CIA official, accompanied by two men later revealed to be KGB operatives, just happens to be seated a few rows from a former girlfriend he hasn't seen for years. More likely, this was arranged, but who would do that? The logical answer seems to be the KGB, which makes us wonder about the nature of Laura's involvement. Then photos of Wilson and Laura together are sent to Wilson's wife, but who was the sender and what were they trying to accomplish?
Interesting Deleted Scenes
The only bonus materials on the DVD are seven deleted scenes with a combined total running time of 16 minutes. It seems to me some of these should have been kept, even though they would make a long movie longer.
In the film, Wilson's brother-in-law John Russell Jr. (Gabriel Macht) dies in Burma in 1944, but four of the deleted scenes tell a more interesting story about this character. In World War II, he was in a Japanese POW camp that was liberated by the Russians, then he was detained in the Soviet Union where he fell in love and got married. But after John returns to the United States, the FBI spots him making regular drops that are picked up by a Soviet diplomat. The FBI tells Wilson, and the way he deals with the situation gives us additional insight into this complicated man.
Another interesting deleted scene is "Ulysses is trying to tell us something," in which we learn what information is in the CIA files on the fiancée of Edward Wilson Jr. (Eddie Redmayne). She's from Mali, but did her schooling in Moscow. Most importantly, she's a KGB swallow, that is, a female agent who seduces men for intelligence-gathering purposes.
Below I've listed the details for the DVD containing The Good Shepherd.
Release Date: April 3, 2007
Anamorphic Widescreen (2.40:1), Color
Feature Film Run Time: 2 Hours 47 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Some Violence, Sexuality and Language
English 5.1 Dolby Digital
French 5.1 Dolby Digital
English Captions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Deleted Scenes (7 scenes with total run time = 16 min.)