Starting in the hot mess of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, reaching back to the 1930s and then hopscotching back and forth between those dates whenever the mood strikes it, the pleasingly complex espionage epic The Good Shepherd tries to tell the story of the birth, rise, and (in a sense) death of the Central Intelligence Agency through the fictional composite character Edward Wilson (Matt Damon
). It's a monumental piece of history to bite off, but Eric Roth's ambitious, multilayered script certainly makes a good attempt at digesting it for us.
While the CIA's roots in the WWII-era OSS (Office of Strategic Services) are well established, very few films have rooted the American spy service as firmly as this one does in its starched, prim and proper WASP world. Wilson, played by Damon as a tight-lipped, practically invisible cipher, comes from one of that world's better families, and so is a shoo-in for Yale's secret Skull & Bones society once he does a little snooping for the FBI on his pro-Nazi poetry professor (Michael Gambon
). Smart and stoic, Wilson shoots up the OSS ranks and soon is masterminding the CIA's global subterfuge against the Soviets. Article continues below
Roth's script never tries to keep us from admiring Wilson's genius for spycraft, which it details with a welcome amount of attention and realism. The Good Shepherd is cloaked in coded language; like Roth's script for Munich, it dramatizes the debilitating nature of espionage, how short a time it would take before a spy begins to doubt everything and everybody in his life. The violence is never James Bond-style, it's personal and extremely unpleasant. A secretary thought to be a spy is unceremoniously gunned down, another agent rumored to be gay is butchered in the night, and the KGB sends an agent's severed finger to Wilson as a warning. Roth even gives Wilson a Russian nemesis, codename Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), who seems modeled on John Le Carre's character Karla -- himself based on a real head of KGB counterintellgence -- and relishes competing against such a brainy, worthy adversary.
However much it praises Wilson's abilities, the film is never quite enamored of this son of privilege, showing him time and again for the coldhearted company man he truly is. In one telling scene where Wilson tries to secure the services of Italian mobster Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci
, in a short but salty cameo), Palmi lists what all the ethnicities in America have to keep them going -- family, church, or whatever -- before getting to the WASPs, saying, "What do you people have?" Wilson replies, "The United States of America. The rest of you people are just passing through." Damon's chilling enunciation of "you people" says everything we need to know about his character: This isn't a man who gave up his love of poetry for patriotism, or abandoned his deaf woman for the WASP princess (Angelina Jolie
, silently suffering) because of a sense of duty. The CIA didn't corrupt this man, or the others who work beside him. They were the corruption, and through them, the CIA corrupted the country.
Director Robert De Niro
hits these points smartly and surely, though he definitely takes his time. For a film with such a restless sense of time -- after leaping back to the 1930s and marching ahead through the years, it can't help jumping forward to 1961 and the Bay of Pigs aftermath -- it has a languorous pace. Shot in lustrous colors by the great Robert Richardson and paced with stately stiffness, De Niro's film echoes the sprawling and relaxed narrative style of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, another nation-forming epic, which De Niro excelled in. Although he packs the film with one of the year's more impressive casts, De Niro reigns them in a little too much. It's one thing to see Damon so tightly-wound, but quite another to witness mercurial performers like John Turturro
and Jolie so straight-jacketed.
Though The Good Shepherd is certainly slow at times, and quite often stiff, there's no denying the relief some viewers will feel upon discovering such a diligently crafted and smart piece of historical fiction; these sorts of films don't come along every day.