Good Shepherd, The (2006): De Niro’s Account of CIA, Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie

Excessive length (168 minutes) is not the main problem of Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, his account of the largely untold story of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Neither is the heavy historical background, based on extensive research conducted by De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth; this basic info about the 1940s and 1950s needs to be conveyed to contemporary viewers.

The film’s problems seem to derive from the inability to find the proper dramatic perspective to deal with its timely yet up-until-now neglected subject, and from a lethargic pacing that often makes the potentially absorbing saga feellonger than it is.

If “The Good Shepherd” is a flawed movie of interesting parts that don’t add up, it’s because the tale lacks a unified directorial vision. Which is strange, since De Niro the director showed much promise in his 1993 feature debut, “A Bronx Tale.”

To be sure, De Niro’s sophomore film is far more ambitious in goal and scope than his first effort. Framed by the political disaster of the Bay of Pigs incident, the narrative spans two decades, from 1939 to 1961 to be precise. You may recall that in April 1961, shortly after Kennedy was elected President, the CIA backed an operation to use Cuban exiles to invade the island and launch a coup against Castro. It ended in a messy failure that suggested, among other things, that an insider mole might have been an informant for the Russian government. I am also not sure that viewing the events of this tumultuous era in American foreign policyWWII, and particularly the Cold War–through the life of one man, Edward Wilson, who believed in America and would sacrifice everything he loved to protect his country, is the best way to do justice to the rather complex subject. That said, I perfectly understand the need to tell a significant history lessonand in segments the expository text unfolds as a lecture–through individual characters and dramatic conflicts.

The cast assembled by De Niro is mostly superb. It’s headed by Oscar winners Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, and includes impressive turns by Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Keir Dullea, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, and Timothy Hutton, among others.

As the lead, Damon plays Edward Wilson, a patriot who understands the value of secrecy. Discretion and a commitment to honor have been deeply embedded in Wilson’s personality and value system since his privileged yet tragic childhood.

As an eager, sensitive student at Yale in 1939, Wilson is recruited to join the secret Skull and Bones society, a tightly knit brotherhood that serves to develop future world leaders. Wilson’s acute mind, spotless reputation and sincere belief in American values render him the prime candidate for an intelligence career by those who monitor the newest recruits.

The idealistic young man is recruited by Bill Sullivan (De Niro), a character based on Wild Bill Donovan, to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA during WWII, for which he serves in London and Berlin. It’s a decision that will alter the course of Wilson’s life and change the geopolitical shape of our times as he and his fellow secret group members create the most powerful covert agency in the world.

Wilson’s methods are adopted as standard operating procedure, and he develops into one of the Agency’s veteran operatives, all the while combating his KGB counterpart in a global chess match. As one of the CIA founders, working in the heart of an organization where duplicity is required and nothing is taken at face value, Wilson’s idealism is steadily eroded by his growing suspicious nature, reflective of a world settling into the paranoia of the Cold War.

But Wilson’s steely dedication to his country comes at an ever-escalating price. Not even the growing concern of his wife, Margaret “Clover” (Angelina Jolie), and his beloved son (Eddie Redmayne) can divert Wilson from a path that will force him to sacrifice everything in dedication to his job.

To his credit, De Niro has not directed the standard fare of a Hollywood spy-game fantasy adventure. Instead, he has made a film that exposes the actual underpinnings of the intelligence services, uncovering how these largely anonymous men have controlled the world–at high personal and professional costs.

“The Good Shepherd” is clearly a labor of love and commitment. Producer-director-actor De Niro has been researching the subject of foreign policy and the way the government gather intelligence since the early 1990s, and he has given his all to making this picture. The script of the estimable Roth (who also wrote “Munich” for Spielberg and “Forrest Gump” for Zemeckis) is thoroughly based on the life of James Angleton (1917-87), the forceful director of the CIA’s counterespionage unit.

As an actor, De Niro is still closely associated with Scorsese, with whom he has made his best work (“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and others), and he has also appeared in “The Godfather” movies, directed by Coppola, who’s credited here as an executive producer. I have no idea if De Niro has consulted with Scorsese or Coppola, but his directorial style is vastly different from that of his mentors, lacking the heat and emotional charge of the former and the smooth storytelling skills of the latter.

De Niro may be too ambitious for his own good, using family relationship of fathers and sons as allegories for American political institutions at large. However, by pitting a single hero against an increasingly complex and “mysteriously” operated political system, he resorts to prevalent format in American political movies. Indeed, unlike the superb German film, “The Lives of Others,” which shows the intimate link between the personal and political arena, “The Good Shepherd” stumbles in showing the inevitable, fateful connection between the film’s micro and macro worlds.

Wilson’s focused thought, rigid discipline, and rectitude as a political operative impinge on his familial duties as husband and father. Estranged from his wife and unable to connect to his son, Wilson goes for another woman, the beautiful fragile Laura (Tammy Blanchard). As the emotionally complex, intensely individualisticat least initially–Damon is well cast, stressing Wilson’s reserved stillness and inner force. However, the combination of a detached character and detached acting would make it harder for viewers to go along with his journey, let alone empathize with his moral dilemmas.

The supporting cast is good. Though playing a small, underwritten part, the beautiful Angelina Jolie illustrates vividly the life of Wilson’s long-suffering wife. Special kudos also go to John Turturro as Ray Brocco, Wilsons top assistant; Michael Gambon as the imposing Dr. Frederichs, the operative who tutors Wilson; and Tammy Blanchard as Wilson’s romantic interest. After long absence from the screen, it’s good to see Joe Pesci (who appeared with De Niro in “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas,” for which he won a Supporting Oscar) as mobster Joseph Palmi, Billy Crudup as Arch Cummings, a role based on Kim Philby, and Keir Dullea as U.S. Senator John Russell Sr.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who won a 1991 Oscar for Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” does a commendable job here, with a more subdued and subtle scheme. The scenes, in which the nearly black-and-white imagery slowly changes into color, bring to mind “Letters from Iwo Jima,” in which lenser Tom Stern used similar stylistic strategy.


Produced by James G. Robinson for Morgan Creek Productions, and Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal for Tribeca Films, “The Good Shepherd” is written by Oscar-winner Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” Munich”). The behind-the-scenes team includes Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (“The Aviator,” “JFK”), Oscar-winner costume designer Ann Roth (“The English Patient”), Oscar-nominated production designer Jeanine Oppewall (“L.A. Confidential”), and Oscar-nominated editor Tariq Anwar (“American Beauty”). The film’s music is composed by Marcelo Zarvos (“Hollywoodland”) and Bruce Fowler (“Jurassic Park”).