The Good Shepherd
April 3, 2007
Robert De Niro,
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Keir Dullea, Martina Gedeck, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Lee Pace, John Turturro, Michael Gambon,
The Good Shepherd (2006) has been a long-gestating project for screenwriter Eric Roth but then again pitching an epic biopic about the creation of the CIA must’ve been a tough sell for studios interested in making crowd-pleasing blockbusters and not overly long films about people talking. Originally, Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct this film and Leonardo DiCaprio to star. Both men dropped out for various reasons with Robert De Niro stepping up to take over directorial duties and Matt Damon as his leading man.
The film begins with the bungled CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba with one of the organization’s founding members Edward Wilson (Damon) learning that there is a traitor in his midst. The film proceeds to flash back to his college days at Yale and his recruitment into a secret society populated by fellow privileged young men, all from families of money and influence. Wilson is approached by a representative from the FBI (Baldwin) and asked to spy on his poetry professor (Gambon) whom they suspect heads up an organization sympathetic to the Nazis.
Wilson is successful and the teacher is forced to resign. This gains him access to many powerful people and opens doors to a whole other world – the ground floor to the creation of a foreign intelligence organization. It is made perfectly clear to him that it will be made up predominantly of WASPs like Wilson. He is aggressively pursued by Margaret Ann Russell (Jolie), the sister of one of his classmates. She becomes pregnant and he marries her because it is expected of him and “the right thing to do.”
Wilson’s lack of personality and emotional detachment make him an ideal spy because he gives nothing away to the point where he almost doesn’t exist. Matt Damon gives a finely nuanced, tightly-controlled performance. Amidst his emotionless facade exists glimmers of humanity, most notably in the form of a deaf girl whom he loves but must give up once he learns that Margaret is pregnant. At the crucial moment of decision for his character, Damon gives a look back to the girl that suggests a tragic end to a life with someone who would have made him truly happy for a loveless marriage that sends him up the social and economic ladder.
The Good Shepherd immerses us in plenty of spy jargon, double crosses and covert operations while everyone speaks in cryptic, veiled threats. The higher up Wilson climbs, the more careful he has to be about the people he can trust. As a result, he becomes increasingly paranoid and rightly so as he is privy to so many of the government’s dirty secrets while also harbouring a few of his own. The film also makes it pretty clear who holds much of the power in the United States and this beautiful underlined in a scene where Wilson meets with a powerful mafia figure who ask him what kind of legacy does he have in the United States to which Wilson replies, “We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
Robert De Niro does a fine job with an ambitious screenplay that covers a lot of ground and a lot of characters and so close attention has to be paid to everything that is said because the film refuses to spell things out. The Good Shepherd is ultimately about the dangerous nature of secrets and how they cannot only hurt a country but an individual as well. The film shows how these secrets take their toll on the country (i.e. the Bay of Pigs fiasco) and on the individual. Wilson is something of a tragic figure: a man who wanted a simple life but instead opted for one in service of his country, acting as one of its keeper of dark secrets. Along the way he lost his humanity, condemned to spend his days living in the shadows.
Sadly, the only extra is seven deleted scenes that reveal what happened to Margaret’s brother after World War II. He was a POW turned CIA operative. There is a follow-up scene where he and Wilson talk about his work and then another where we see him under surveillance by Wilson and the FBI. It’s an interesting subplot but one can see why it was cut from an already lengthy running time.
De Niro has hinted at an extended version to surface on DVD at some point. Hopefully, this will also include more substantial extras.