When Robert De Niro directs a movie, he could probably get just about any actor he wants to play a role in it, no matter how small. At least that is the impression one gets from his second feature film, The Good Shepherd, which opened on December 22. The screenplay by Eric Roth recounts the prehistory of the Central Intelligence Agency, through the story of its predecessor, the OSS, during World War II. The protagonist, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, who replaced De Niro's first choice, Leonardo DiCaprio), is probably based on James Angleton, former head of counterintelligence at CIA. De Niro has reportedly been interested in the story for a decade or so, trying to interest other directors before deciding to direct it himself. His aim seems to have been to turn the spy thriller genre on its head, showing CIA and Soviet spooks not as figures of romantic mystery and glamor à la James Bond but as normal -- even bland -- men, driven to paranoid isolation by the dangers of their chosen occupation. As such, it has some notable forebears in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Three Days of the Condor (1975). All of them are better movies than The Good Shepherd, but there is much here to hold one's interest.
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At the core of the formation of the OSS, and then CIA, is the WASP cabal of Skull and Bones, the "secret" fraternal society at Yale that also boasts both Presidents Bush as members. A small, elite group that refers to one another by code names and functions through the unmasking of personal secrets -- that describes either a bunch of Yale frat boys or international espionage. As the members of this august society meet at Deer Island (an island in the St. Lawrence River still owned by the trust behind Skull and Bones), Wilson is again tapped by the same old boys network, only this time for much more serious skullduggery.
The unattentive viewer, especially one who is not as interested in the history of American intelligence services as De Niro reportedly is, can quickly become lost in the complicated web of characters, most of whom are not particularly developed. Wilson is recruited by an FBI agent, Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) and eventually goes to work for General Bill Sullivan (De Niro). In England during World War II, Wilson works to form the OSS with a military intelligence officer, Ray Brocco (John Turturro), in close association with British intelligence, represented mainly by one Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup). In London, he is guided by Philip Allen (William Hurt), who eventually becomes the head of the new agency, the CIA, that Sullivan creates. In all of this, we are trying to discover just how Wilson and his colleagues screwed up at the Bay of Pigs. The agency enlists the help of Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci), who has shady business interests in Cuba. Then there are all of the Russian agents. Wait, who is Alec Baldwin again?
Matt Damon essentially reprises the stony-faced, stiff-bodied work he gave in The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a man who seems harmless enough on the outside but who is capable of doing terrible things. The similarity of the two roles is heightened by their common time frame -- Ripley is set in the 1950s -- and the retro eyeglasses both characters wear. Unfortunately, the screenplay is long and contorted (not unlike Eric Roth's last film, Munich), and the rather Byzantine way of narrating the story, shifting awkwardly between time periods, does not help. The movie is long by perhaps a half-hour, and the place to cut is in the relationship between Wilson and his estranged wife, Clover (Angelina Jolie). The casting of Jolie is on the money for the first appearances of the character, as Wilson is instantly seduced by Clover, whom he marries because she is pregnant. In the later parts of the movie, however, the character becomes a cipher devoid of interest. I was hoping she would be killed, but I am not sure whether to blame Jolie or the script.
I have only scratched the surface of the cast list patched together by the script. If you enjoy spy thrillers of the murky, complicated variety, you will probably enjoy The Good Shepherd. For car chases and witty banter, Casino Royale is more likely to satisfy.