The Good Shepherd (2006) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexuality and language
Running Time: 160 min.

Cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Tammy Blanchard, John Sessions, Michael Gambon, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin, Oleg Stefan, William Hurt, Robert De Niro, Eddie Redmayne, Gabriel Macht, Keir Dullea, Martina Gedeck, Timothy Hutton, Mark Ivanir, Joe Pesci
Director: Robert De Niro

Screenplay: Eric Roth
Review published December 21, 2006

Now here's a movie that will surely test your movie watching mettle.  Excessively lengthy, emotionally cold as ice, and thematically overambitious, The Good Shepherd will draw its share of detractors from the impatient, the confused, and the ones who think that a story is bad if there isn't a character they can identify with.  To those that complain about this film: you're right.  It's all those things, but it's also so much more than that.  While I can agree with the complaints that are lobbed on this film, it's only after the fact that I can do so.  While the movie played, I sat riveted by it all.  When I walked out, I felt it was one of the best movies I had seen this year.  Then I read the negative criticisms, and agreed with nearly every one of them.  Intellectually, I can understand why someone wouldn't like this film.  Yet, I think it is such a fascinating, absorbing, and richly developed work, that I still consider it one of the best films of the year, despite the detractions.

Although The Good Shepherd plays like a film based on a true story, with its real-life historical events as the backdrop, and characters that possess traits similar to those who've lived and worked during the years covered by the film under the same job title, the story is mostly fictionalized.  It would be difficult to make a film this pessimistic, unflattering, and accusatory about anyone, even if the everything that occurred within the film were absolutely true.  The is a real story insomuch as it is similar to things that took place behind the scenes of the nation's espionage game during the Cold War era, and dramatic license is employed whenever possible to bring about an overall story of a man who is conflicted between his loyalty to his family and his loyalty to his country.  Or, perhaps he may not be conflicted at all.

At its heart, The Good Shepherd is about the origins and early years of the CIA, as told through the story of one of its leading founders, Edward Wilson (Damon, The Departed), loosely based on real-life counterpart, James J. Angleton.  The covers nearly four decades, constantly shifting between the events surrounding the aftermath of the botched CIA-sponsored "Bay of Pigs" attempt at overthrowing Fidel Castro and those of Edwards' formative years, mostly including his dealing with the spy operations that took place in the World War II and early Cold War eras.  There is evidence that suggests that the reason behind the failure of the Bay of Pigs had been due to an insider's tip within the CIA organization itself, so Edwards and company work diligently in uncovering who might have been responsible.  Meanwhile, Edwards' own loyalties are tested, including being constantly manipulated by unknown forces, loyalties that become conflicted by the family he doesn't really want, and the potential for a romance that had been the only thing he seemed to ever care about, other than his unwavering support for his country's well-being.

Clocking in at nearly three hours in length, it's hard not to come away feeling like the film could have been much shorter and still delivered on everything it needed to from a story standpoint.  Certainly there are a number of characters that don't particularly add to the core themes, and one can point to certain scenes that carry on long after their importance to the film has expired.  At the same time, these characters and scenes also add a certain complexity to the film, and even when they seem superfluous, I can't think of any that I would casually excise.  They may not be important, but they are enriching and engrossing for reasons not altogether apparent at the time.

In many ways, The Good Shepherd is very similar to screenwriter Eric Roth's previous screenplay for Munich.  Both films use fictional characters linked to real historical events.  Both films are character studies about men who are driven by a duty to a higher calling that exceeds their own personal lives.  Both films revolve around themes of trust, loyalty, honor, and a Machiavellian principle of the ends justifying the means to make the world a better place, at least from the perspective of the participants.  Both are about silent wars that are being fought behind the scenes, outside of the public eye, that have far-reaching consequences, every bit as potentially deadly as the more tangible wars.  Both films are sprawling, lengthy, and filled with many characters who weave in and out of the overall tapestry. 

Of course, Munich is the more accessible film for most viewers, as the protagonist of the film is far less aloof.  By contrast, Edwards remains an emotionally-distant shell throughout most of his story, as enigmatic and complex as the espionage rings he'd crack.  It's harder to feel for a man who would willingly regard his own family as expendable for the good of the country, but thanks to Damon's subtle, understated performance, we can see that he is very conflicted about his actions throughout the film.  Sometimes we even feel his shame, though he barely shows it.

While some may see the film as lengthy and lacking focus, the only aspect of the film that did actually bother me is the poor work done in aging the main characters.  Matt Damon's Edwards always seems to look the same, whether he is in his 20s or his 40s.  The same goes for Angelina Jolie (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sky Captain) as Edwards' long-suffering wife Margaret.  Although both 30-something actors are youthful enough in appearance to buy when they play college students, somehow they suffer when they play characters closer to their age, perhaps because the make-up was underutilized.  Normally, such things wouldn't be as much of a problem, except we have a film that constantly shifts back and forth in time to various points in the characters' lives.  It's sometimes difficult to remember the proper time and context of certain scenes when the characters always seem to look the same.

When it's all said and done, I was willing to overlook this detraction, and many of the others mentioned earlier, for the sake of the overall work.  It may not be the most scintillating spy yarn you'll see (this is the antithesis of Casino Royale), but for lovers of cold, intricate tales of espionage, it is a deep, rich and sometimes even spellbinding work that will reward patient, thoughtful viewers with a fuller understanding and appreciation (and perhaps even a disdain) for people who are engaged in privately battling, however misguided, for the livelihoods of the rest of us, at the ultimate expense of their own.

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo