The Good Shepherd

Universal Studios
Robert De Niro/United States 2006

Matt Damon proved very convincing as the amnesiac spy, Jason Bourne; even the fact that the actor seems physically to be little past his teenage years proved an effective counterpoint to Bourne’s true nature. A multi-dimensional character, Bourne might suddenly drop his moody expression to ram a pen into an assailant’s neck or drive a Mini down a set of steps. Such avenues of creative expression are unexplored by Edward Wilson, Damon’s character in The Good Shepherd. Wilson sells his soul early on in the film for the chance to be part of America’s secret service and becomes a barely aging ghost – serious, emotionless and consequently rather dull. When he cracks a smile at the sight of a lost love you can almost hear the facial muscles creak through lack of use.

This is the world of spying as it probably is and not how cinema has led us to believe it should be: operatives behind desks analyzing blurred photos or snatches of recorded conversation for clues to the identity of this week’s traitor. They talk in double speak – being told to “bring your dancing shoes to the party” probably means you are about to sanction an invasion rather than attempt the foxtrot. When killing is required, it is a unpleasant business taking place in a squalid back alley or a hotel room.

Robert De Niro’s film presents the CIA and the OSS, its WWII predecessor, as a particularly powerful boy’s club, an extension of the fraternities found in the Ivy League where “fun” initiation ceremonies involve you wrestling naked in mud while someone pisses on you from a great height. A more accurate metaphor for life is hard to imagine. While Wilson is a student at Yale, he is taught to spy on and, more importantly, betray those close to him before being recruited to work in counter intelligence against Nazi Germany. He finds himself part of an organization seeking to protect the privileged WASP elite first and freedom second.

When the Cold War begins, it is no longer a case of black and white but murky gray. It is an era of defectors who may or may not be who they say they are, lovers who might pass on your pillow talk to the enemy, and dirty tricks played against those who allow Communists to set up shop in America’s back yard. The world becomes more complex, as does the film. The Good Shepherd cannot seem to decide if it wants to be a history of the CIA or concentrate on Wilson and the detrimental effect his career has on his family. After a good two hours, it opts for the latter and finally livens up with a terrible act of on-screen betrayal.

The Good Shepherd is a rather flat affair lacking fully rounded characters or an especially gripping narrative. At the risk of taking a well-placed bullet to the head, I imagine the CIA has been responsible for some pretty dirty dealings in its lifetime but, aside from one torture scene, this film wimps out on the more unpleasant side of the organization. De Niro is a fine director, but if the like of Oliver Stone had made The Good Shepherd it could have been really interesting.

© 2007 Alan Diment. All rights reserved.

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