The modern spy-story paradigm tends to prize excitement over believability, tension over coherence, and tangled plotting over depth of character. The Good Shepherd, director Robert De Niro’s richly produced CIA epic, reverses these predilections, opting to elevate character and seriousness over action-film frivolity. For a little while, this is promising, and the elegant production sustains an air of thoughtful luxury throughout. But eventually, it becomes clear that this is a spy movie so concerned with its own weighty-yet-vague ambitions that it’s traded edge-of-your-seat for put-you-to-sleep.
In order to emphasize the personal cost of a life of duplicity, the loose, multi-decade narrative winds along two related paths. Both threads center on Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a tight-lipped intelligence operative from the northeastern upper crust. We start in 1961, where Wilson, working for the CIA, is trying to out a mole, mostly by detailed analysis of a mysterious photograph and recording. But though this thread is responsible for the film’s narrative drive and any suspense it musters, it is interrupted repeatedly and at length to dip into Wilson’s personal history. We see him as a member of Yale’s Skull and Bones, as an intelligence officer in World War II, and as founding operative with the CIA. And we also see him as a lonely family man with a son and an estranged wife (Angelina Jolie). Like a historically grounded True Lies, it’s yet another example of what has become Hollywood’s default spy story: A dedicated man must struggle with the effect a life of secrecy has on his family.
The intention initially seems to be to trace the entire early history of the CIA through Wilson’s journey, but far too much emphasis is placed on Wilson’s strained personal life and various tangential subplots designed to drive home the aura of suspicion and isolation in which spies must exist. What should’ve been a riveting history lesson ends up at best unwieldy — even borderline dull. Despite the abundance of character and incident, De Niro never really succeeds in giving us much of the gritty detail that should’ve coursed through every scene in a lengthy CIA history.
For more than two and a half hours, the film slogs through the decades, spinning out anecdotes of deception and double-dealing. But precious little actual history makes it onto the screen, and the various pieces and parts we do see add very little real insight into America’s intelligence operations. Instead, we learn, over and over again in vague, pointless scenes, that spy life and married life mix about as badly and libertarians and socialists. But isn’t this obvious? After all, James Bond wasn’t exactly an icon of monogamy. There’s a reason our fictional super spies used to come preloaded with reputations for lying and womanizing. It comes with the territory, and The Good Shepherd does little more than eloquently restate the genre’s bromides.
This is all the more disappointing considering the talent involved. The supporting cast brings together an impressive cadre of respectable A-listers. Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci, Billy Crudup, and De Niro himself all drop in to make sure the narrative stays plenty twisted. Trudging through the movie with watchful eyes and trench coats, each does a serviceable job playing some variation on the hardened intelligence man. But despite their efforts, they’re little more than plot devices who show up, provide some handy exposition, and disappear.
As Wilson’s estranged wife, Angelina Jolie flails and emotes with much vigor, but produces similarly empty results. Jolie’s beauty is legendary, and it’s on full display here, even when she’s made up to appear depressed and middle-aged. But her looks are almost too much. She seems plastic, like a department-store mannequin — more constructed than natural. Not helping the matter is that her role, as written, is equally lifeless. She has no goals or history to speak of; her only purpose is to react.
Damon, as both the young Yale student and the older spy hobnobbing with the east-coast elite, once again capitalizes on his Ivy League charm. But instead of projecting a slick outward façade, as he did earlier this year in The Departed, Damon curls up and closes off, receding into a world of careful strategy where every word spoken is a risk. In fact, Damon’s strongest moments are his silent ones. His penetrating stare suggests someone who is so skilled at manipulating communication that he has forgotten how to let it occur naturally. Every reaction and every word is calculated and cold.
In Wilson’s shady world, speech is dangerous, so silence becomes a method of communication. Except for the hysterical Jolie, the cast all care obsessively for their words: They speak in terse, clipped bursts, crafting artfully deflective phrases that, even when not in code, sound as if they are. Wilson has an affair with a partially deaf woman, and his relationship with her is much better than the one with his wife, suggesting that for him, true intimacy lies only in those relationships that leave things unsaid.
As an actor, De Niro’s strength has always been capturing the shifty ambiguities of men who cannot or will not speak directly. As a director, he continues to explore the ways in which language can be used both to clarify and obfuscate. But despite obvious technical ability, he’s far more effective in front of the camera than behind it. With its luscious photography, its luxurious production design, and its soaring score, The Good Shepherd seems to be intended as a meditation on the mysteries of silence, the vagaries of affection, the soul-withering effects of a life of lies — yet for two and a half hours it examines these notions almost entirely as abstractions. In the end, The Good Shepherd says both too much and not nearly enough.