The Good Shepherd was directed by Robert De Niro (his second directorial effort after A Bronx Tale) and stars Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, and De Niro himself, in addition to an extensive supporting cast. The film, which was rated “R” for “some violence, sexuality and language” by the MPAA, is advertised as telling the untold story of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is a Morgan Creek Productions production and is distributed by Universal Pictures.
The film is three hours of mostly flashbacks that are supposed to reveal everything Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) sacrificed to serve his country. Instead, they show Damon’s character as a stone-faced, unemotional man. He shows little remorse for losing his family and his soul as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into the questionable practices of counter-espionage.
The movie opens with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The CIA has a leak and tries to discover it throughout the film. During the course of the investigation, Wilson (Damon), the head of counter-intelligence, has flashbacks, starting with his induction into the secret society, Skull and Bones.
It is his membership in this group at Yale that causes him to be introduced to General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), who recruits young Edward into the O.S.S., the WWII spy agency. This sends him to London, where his mentor, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), teaches him the fine art of counter-intelligence. Yet his last piece of advice to Wilson before Fredericks is murdered — “Get out while you still have a soul” — goes unheeded.
After returning from the war, General Sullivan recruits Wilson into the fledgling C.I.A. He is constantly away from home, but you get the distinct impression it did not matter to Edward Wilson. He never loved his wife and never knew his son and doesn’t appear to care. Wilson is forced to make tough decisions that nudge him to sacrifice innocents, suspect close allies and oversee torturing of suspects.
Damon plays a character that is supposed to be hard to read, something remarked upon by his counter-part working for the Soviet KGB. This is something he excels at, as the audience never gets to know the character and never get to feel what he is experiencing. It is much like watching a moving statue, just as lifeless.
Throughout the movie a web is woven of friends and enemies, though it is often difficult to tell who is what. This is further muddied as Edward seems to betray both. The viewer is supposed to see how Mr. Wilson loses his soul during the course of the film, but that is difficult as he never appears to have one to begin with.
In one scene a gentleman is tortured so badly he commits suicide, and Edward Wilson does not so much as blink. This is supposed to show how he had changed, yet at the very beginning of the film, Edward leaves the girl he loved to marry a girl he impregnated. The same lack of emotion is shown early on and carries on throughout the movie.
The movie fails to keep the viewers’ attention and goes on about 45 minutes longer than it needs to. Long before he is uncovered, the audience figures out who the “leak” is and how it happened. It is hard not to fall asleep after that point. In fact, one cannot help but think at the end, “what was the point?”
If this movie had been a rental instead of a theater-going experience, it would have been returned unfinished.