At once a prequel and sequel to The Good German, Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd taps into the inexhaustible vein of American political paranoia with a drama that reaches back to the formation of the CIA in the 1920s and forward to the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that failed to overthrow Fidel Castro. Though rooted deep in Cold War history, this rambling saga of closed-door international shenanigans bristles with object lessons for our current administration, with its pugnacious contempt for keeping open books.
That’s if they can sit through it. Clocking in at nearly three slow, sincere and fitfully bamboozling hours, The Good Shepherd has the stretched-out feel of a movie made to shore up the legacy of a man on the downhill slope of a brilliant acting career. De Niro is damned if he’s going to make a standard thriller out of this view from within the CIA, which might be refreshing if his solemn moral parable weren’t so lacking in any other kind of juice, and if its hero were less of a round-shouldered, whey-faced organization man. Though early scenes show the Office of Strategic Services (as it was then opaquely called) handpicking its first recruits from Yale University’s highly secretive, men-only Skull and Bones Society (which nurtured several generations of Bushes and helps explain their paranoid governing style), its star recruit, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), is no fun-loving frat boy. Stolid, earnest and fatally shaped by a childhood trauma that has made him a lifelong outsider looking for somewhere to belong, Wilson loathes the club’s sadistic hazing practices but responds eagerly to its call for unquestioning loyalty, even when that means selling out a beloved English professor (Michael Gambon) who will later pop up to hold the fledgling spymaster’s feet to all manner of fires. Emotionally remote and conscientious, the colorless Wilson (who is purportedly based on longtime CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton) is an American George Smiley minus the iconoclasm, with a brief to shift the ground of his country’s foreign affairs from the Good War to the Cold War. He acquires a wife (a very good Angelina Jolie, improbably cast as the long-suffering helpmeet) and a son who longs for his affection as Wilson once longed for his own father’s, but treats both as background noise to the task at hand — creating global disorder in the name of safety and freedom.
Armed with a ponderous script by Eric Roth and an admirable ensemble of shifty customers — William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup and a jowly, paunchy De Niro as the Army general who helped set up the Agency — The Good Shepherd slogs diligently through Eastern and Western European capitals and on to the new nations of Africa. In this shadowy arena, Wilson plays cat-and-mouse with the KGB counterpart (Oleg Stefan) who will unexpectedly give him his final exam in company loyalty and drive home the oft-repeated message that Wilson has helped create a world of zero credibility. Tamping down his natural animal exuberance, Damon manages to squeeze real pathos from this hapless creature, who offers unwavering devotion to those he can’t trust and routinely betrays those he can, and for whom secrecy is no longer just a habit but a character trait. Still, it’s almost impossible to buy Wilson as a pioneer who helped shape one of the world’s most intricate and devious intelligence agencies, leaving us to wonder how the CIA could ever have gotten off the ground through the labors of such an utter stiff.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD | Directed by ROBERT DE NIRO | Written by ERIC ROTH | Produced by JAMES G. ROBINSON and JANE ROSENTHAL | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide