At nearly three hours in length, this long-in-development project shows not only the weight of its esteemed subject — the Central Intellgence Agency of the United States — but the residual tarnish of the many hands through which it reportedly passed over the years, including Francis Coppola and the late John Frankenheimer. That's not normally a good thing, though in this case it turns out to be a vital component of the film's dramatic impact, giving the picture a certain antique patina that recalls a bygone pre-MTV era when filmmakers dealt with serious subject matter in a mature and deliberate fashion, nurturing their stories and giving characters time and space to develop.
Robert De Niro may not appear the most obvious choice to helm a picture of this sort — his only previous directorial effort, 1993's A Bronx Tale, was tame and small by comparison — but his association with both Coppola and Frankenheimer, who first brought the project to him as an actor, as well as his long pedigree as an actor and producer on projects of similar gravitas, suggest more than adequate credentials to manage the task. And manage it he does, compellingly examining the birth and turbulent gestation of the CIA over the course of some three decades through the eyes of one of its most pivotal operatives, counter-intelligence expert Edward Wilson (Matt Damon).
The story focuses primarily on Wilson's meteoric rise through the spy ranks, from his initiation as a Skull and Bones man at Yale in the 1940s (the same society to which both current president George W. Bush and his father, as well as former presidential candidate John Kerry belonged — and still belong) to his pivotal work organizing American counterintelligence operations in postwar Berlin and continuing into the belly of the Cold War in the 1960s. Told in vaguely nonlinear fashion, so as to reinforce the contrasts between the early and later stages of the U.S.-Soviet conflict as well as highlight the transformation that befell Wilson as loyalty to agency and country outstripped even love of family, this is a picture that moves with feline stealth and at a pace that could seem glacial to someone expecting a traditional James Bond or Jason Bourne adventure. For what most interests De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth ( Forrest Gump ) isn't so much the excitement of the spy game as the real currency of espionage: anxiety. Knowing whom to trust, or if anyone can be trusted at all, is the challenge that steadily eats at Wilson's soul as the geopolitical chess match between rising superpowers reaches critical proportions.
Those on whom Wilson must rely (Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Michael Gambon and Alec Baldwin) are never quite what they appear, but neither are they what he most fears, creating a crushing fog of trust that leads him to recede more and more into his own obsessions. This is most evident in his marriage to the sister of a classmate, Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), which serves as a tragic measuring stick for the job's moral corrosiveness. It's here that the Coppola influence is most obvious — Wilson's trajectory is hauntingly similar to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, and there are times when Damon and Jolie almost seem to be channeling Al Pacino and Diane Keaton. But, rather than run from the parallels, De Niro uses them to his advantage, almost like religious iconography, the mere invocation of which works on the audience like emotional shorthand.
The recent assassination (still unsolved) of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poison in London is a stern and sobering reminder that much of what is depicted in The Good Shepherd is neither fabricated nor exaggerated and still very much a reality. There are no easy resolutions to its moral dilemmas, which De Niro and Roth are careful to leave artfully unvarnished — for who can truly take the moral high ground in a battle that exists exclusively below the surface?
At the same time, The Good Shepherd is not an easily embraceable picture — there are no dazzling set pieces, no standout scenes, quotable lines or magic movie moments, and its characters are, for the most part, wholly unsavory. But the story it tells is simply too compelling to dismiss, even at its ugliest. As with The Godfather, there's a certain operatic quality that works like a digestive aid, though large chunks will still be hard for some viewers to swallow.
If De Niro is to be credited as the orchestrator and conductor of the piece, Damon is its virtuoso concertmaster, setting the emotional tone which his esteemed colleagues follow in perfect harmony. Cameos that might otherwise be distracting — Joe Pesci and Kier Dullea, most notably — hit their notes so perfectly that they instead feel organic to the overall effort.
There's an enormous amount to absorb here, both emotionally and intellectually, making it easy to shortchange the efforts of cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, both of whom deserve Oscar nominations for their work. Editor Tariq Anwar, however, may be the most easily overlooked simply because of the picture's length — but make no mistake, the assemblage of so much material, the managing of so many factual details, the fine-tuning of so many performances of such excruciating subtlety all without unraveling the picture's central thematic and emotional threads could easily be considered the glue that holds it all together.
Universal clearly isn't expecting
The Good Shepherd
to reach blockbuster status — by all conceivable definitions, this is a prestige project. But with careful handling, its theatrical legs and ancillary life could be long and prosperous. And, considering how rarely studios now take risks on subject matter this relevant, every penny in the well makes everyone, filmmakers and filmgoers alike, all the richer.
Cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup and Robert De Niro
Director: Robert De Niro
Screenwriter: Eric Roth
Producers: James G. Robinson, Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro
Rating: R for some violence, sexuality and language
Running time: 167 min.
Release date: December 22, 2006