Seriously, has anyone ever heard of a bad shepherd? So honourable is the business of flock-tending, you wouldn’t think the title in need of a qualifier. And with Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German in the offing, it’ll make for some amusing titular mix-ups and inevitable gags about well-behaved Alsatians.
Still, The Good Shepherd – about the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency – comes with exceptional pedigree. There’s the legendary Robert De Niro, who forgoes his recent comedic diversions for an overdue heavyweight project, stepping behind the camera for the first time since 1993’s A Bronx Tale.
There’s also a killer cast, with character-actor stalwarts like Alec Baldwin, William Hurt and Michael Gambon filling out its most minor roles. Throw in meticulous writer Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider), and The Good Shepherd, superficially, is a film with ‘must-see’ stamped all over it.
It has a compelling backstory, too. Billed for a dozen years as Hollywood’s Greatest Unfilmed Screenplay, no studio would touch the project; all seemingly reluctant to make heroes of the nefarious architects of the New World Order. Post- 9/11, the CIA has been rehabilitated, its agents the New Boy Scouts, guarantors of American Liberty. Sure, a few eggs get broken in pursuit of the proverbial omelette, but such is the Price Of Freedom, pal. And here’s how it all began.
Our crook-wielder is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a thinly-veiled characterisation of real CIA chief James Angleton, whose Clark Kent demeanour belies a man who becomes both bête noire of the KGB and instigator of the Bay of Pigs invasion – the point at which the story ends.
Told in a series of flashbacks, we see Wilson recruited at Yale in 1939, shortly after his induction into the secret Skull And Bones society (more recent initiates include George W. Bush). Unswerving, discreet and driven to “do the right thing”, he earns his spurs by ratting on his Nazi-sympathising poetry professor (Michael Gambon) and is in on the ground floor as World War Two mutates US intelligence from a cabal of decadent New England WASPs into a team of hardnosed Cold Warriors. From the moment he accepts a posting to Blitz-torn London, Wilson lives a shadowy existence.
It goes without saying that he’s an emotional cold fish, locked in a shotgun marriage to comely Clover (Angelina Jolie), Wilson’s secret double life is the cause of discontent on the part of both his wife and whingeing son (Eddie Redmayne). Wilson has to choose between loyalty to his kin and allegiance to his cause, and it’s here that De Niro’s debt to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (who exec-produced) runs deepest – the CIA’s closed ranks, code of honour and principle of keeping your mouth shut almost interchangeable with the ethos of the Mob.
Exquisitely shot, exhaustively detailed and with some neat supporting turns by the likes of De Niro, John Turturro and, yes, John Sessions (as a Russian defector) there’s plenty to both applaud and enthrall. Hell, even old mucker Joe Pesci gets a cameo. In the debit column, however, Jolie looks like she flounced in from another movie, Billy Crudup’s Kim Philby-ish Englishman is an exercise in pure ham, and any half-decent air-raid warden would blow his tin hat at the curtains-open-and-lights-blazing scenes of the Luftwaffe’s bombardment.
Still, none of these points detract from the film’s most riveting episodes, especially during the first half of the movie as Wilson is transformed from gadabout student to the introverted company man he’ll remain over three decades. It’s in this sense that The Good Shepherd is hoist by its own petard. The trade of espionage is no whizz-bang James Bond fantasy, it makes clear. Rather, it’s the province of trilby-wearing mandarins; men whose dullness, patriotism and unquestioning obedience are the prime qualities of their station. Whatever way you cut it, the result is a film about an exceptionally grey man. As such, it feels essentially soulless.
You can sense De Niro’s pain here. By his own admission he had to leave an awful lot of material out of an already lengthy running time, forced to choose between a compelling human drama and a comprehensive documentary exercise. It’s a dense piece of work, with some sub-plots (like the relationship between Damon and Gambon) screaming for more air. Others, with all the double-crossing, are just downright confusing.
But with ambition so rare these days in a big studio release, it would be churlish not to pay credit where it’s due. The Good Shepherd is an admirable beast, even if it’s one you’ll struggle to fall in love with.