The CIA, its predecessor the OSS, the Skull & Bones fraternity, MI5, the KGB, the Cubans, World War II, the Cold War that quickly followed in its aftermath, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy era, Matt Damon, Robert De Niro (also directing), Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Joe Pesci, spies! Espionage! Cloaks (or at least trenchcoats) and daggers! Bad guys and conspiracy theories!
It all sounds like a list of ingredients for a bloody and good action-spy flick, a popcorn pleaser, doesn’t it? But alas and alack, it is nothing of the sort. The Good Shepherd is a careful and slow paced look at the origins and early development of the CIA. And when I say slow, I do mean it – it is a good hour too long, most of which is taken up by long apparently meaningful shots of Damon looking… flat. Emotionless.
Damon’s character, Edward Wilson, is loosely based on James Jesus Angleton, head of CIA Counter Intelligence through the 60s and 70s, Jesus being the titular “Good Shepherd”. A Yale student, he is inducted into the Skull & Bones society, and drawn from there into the world of counter-intelligence, as World War II breaks out. He is initially courting a deaf girl, but after a night with Clover (Jolie) which leaves her pregnant, he does “the right thing” and marries her, before heading to Europe a week later. He returns 6 years later to a son and a wife he doesn’t know. The CIA is formed shortly after out of the ashes of the OSS, the intelligence agency in the war, and the cat-and-mouse game with the Russians begin.
All of this back story is intercut with the ‘present’, where the agency is trying to clean up following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, as the US Government covertly tried to stop Fidel Castro. Edward is trying to find out who could have leaked information that caused the operation to go wrong.
Throughout the movie, there is the repetition of the theme “Who can you trust?”, and how secrets destroy lives and relationships. Edward is prepared to sacrifice nearly all in the service of his country, and he is depicted very much as a loner character. You want to cheer him on, but at the same time the drive and lack of emotion that he’s got is a little disturbing. The lack of emotion displayed by Damon only serves to further slow the pace of the movie and make it feel like there was so much more that could have been done to make this a more engaging film. You almost cheer when the Russians are on screen, because you know they’ll show emotion and liven the scene, their dark suggestions of action and manner of talking living up to the stereotypes of the Soviet era.
Ultimately, it’s more of a history lesson layed under a family story, one where the family relationship is steadily destroyed by the secrets that envelope Damon’s character. Jolie plays the dutiful but frustrated wife in the loveless marriage well, though it’s getting a little harder to believe she’s a young budding girl that she appears as at the start of the movie. Baldwin puts in an excellent performance, albeit with limited lines.
I’ve seen too many movies recently that moved much too slowly (Infernal Affairs II & III especially), and this was just another one on the pile. ★★☆