The Good Shepherd is Robert De Niro’s second directorial effort (his first being 1993’s A Bronx Tale). Reportedly a pet project of his for nine years, The Good Shepherd is another of those Hollywood oddities that floats around in limbo for several years – moving from one director to another – before it finally gets made. As a film it provides a fascinating, albeit fictional, account of how the most powerful intelligence agency in the world, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), came to be.
At its centre is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a promising young poetry graduate from Yale University who joins an elite brotherhood known as the Skull and Bones society. As a new member he forms connections with powerful individuals and the people that will eventually indoctrinate him into the world of intelligence and counter intelligence. As a true patriot Edward will go to any length to protect his country, often sacrificing his own happiness and that of his family’s, in order to keep secrets that will ensure his country is safe. However, as the decades pass the secrecy and silence he is forced to maintain begin to eat away at him from the inside.
The Good Shepherd is an old school spy film in the style of a classic cloak and dagger murder mystery. It’s violent, gritty and, much like the nefarious dealings of its characters, not afraid to get its hands dirty. The spy world of the 1960s is, in my opinion, much more intriguing on film than the sophisticated and modern spy antics of Mission Impossible and the contemporary James Bond.
The practical pre-information age realities that The Good Shepherd’s characters must deal with in order to get their jobs done engrossed me immensely. A perfect example can be found at the beginning of the film: As Edward Wilson commutes to work, a young boy on the bus asks if he has change for a dollar. Unbeknownst to us, the serial number on the dollar is actually a key used to decipher a message.
This may seem extremely elaborate but the lack of instantaneous information that we have become so accustomed to in today’s world necessitated this rather clunky system of information transfer which makes for fantastic viewing. Secret compartments in closets, passwords, clandestine meetings in the street and complicated systems of espionage make The Good Shepherd a memorable experience.
With a stellar cast and performances to match, De Niro’s years of experience in front of the camera certainly are in evidence here and this is where his strength as a director lies. Matt Damon’s performance may be perceived as being rather lifeless but I would argue that this suits the character of Edward Wilson perfectly. At the start of the film we see Wilson in drag performing a song and dance number on stage that is in stark contrast to the man he will become.
As the film progresses, Damon’s character seems to become physically smaller and more non-descript as he loses his humanity; so much so that he could simply disappear into a sea of people in the street and you wouldn’t miss him one bit. Damon as performer and De Niro as director combine to create a memorable performance and rather than watching a character develop we witness one disintegrate before our eyes.
Some have described the world of espionage depicted in the The Good Shepherd as dreary and dull but I found it to be engaging and as true to real espionage as I imagine it to be. It is, however, a slow film that requires a basic understanding of Cold War happenings in order to fully appreciate it and, with a 156 minute running time, it isn’t easy on the bum – De Niro needed to let go off certain scenes and end the film sooner.
If you enjoy intense political and character-driven films and don’t mind sitting for an extended amount of time then The Good Shepherd is a film for you.