The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd is a worthy film. You can tell this by the subject matter: a fictionalised account of the forming of the Central Intelligence Agency. You can tell it by the quality of the cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, William Hurt and Joe Pesci to name but a few. And you can tell it by the running time: a buttock-numbing 167 minutes.

To be fair the time, while not exactly skipping by, doesn’t particularly drag either, although De Niro doesn’t do himself any favours by focusing the story on Edward Wilson (Damon), a spy whose counter-intelligence skills boil down to administrative genius. Yes, it’s realistic but watching someone make a strategic phonecall to undermine a foreign government is generally not as exciting as watching James Bond whoop bad guy ass. Wilson’s unerring devotion to his country comes at a cost, namely family life and he watches his relationship with his wife Margaret (Jolie) and his young son, Edward Jr., falter. However, Wilson believes his sacrifice is a price worth paying. Besides, by protecting the country, he keeps them safe too.

A the film charts the development of the CIA, Edward finds himself drawn deeper into certain situations, unable to trust anyone and, with a mole’s leaks causing the Bay of Pigs debacle, the possible end of his career. As he tries to salvage the situation, he finds himself in a true Hobson’s choice scenario, when he must finally choose between family and country. It’s a long build-up to the admittedly impressive ending and The Good Shepherd provides an interesting view of the politics of the 1940s onwards. But it is a little dry and does rely heavily on the audience knowing the intricacies of those politics.

Also, despite some handy on-screen dates to help you keep track as the tale unfolds in flashback, there are moments when De Niro’s apparent reluctance to cover his leads with prosthetics and wigs means that Edward never appears to age, which comes as quite a shock when he’s suddenly meeting his son – about six-years old in the last scene – who’s now 20-something and at Yale. It’s sort of encouraging that De Niro doesn’t want to rely on the tricks of the trade and risk risible grey wigs and things, but it does confuse the story somewhat. And this is a story that generally doesn’t need more confusing. A solid – if not terribly exciting – movie.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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