If James Bond were to wander into “The Good Shepherd” by accident, he’d no doubt wonder where the action was. Although there are occasional bits of tradecraft — top-secret files tucked in among the laundry, hearing aids that turn out to be radio transmitters — and a couple of low-key rub-outs, this is a spy movie with no pyrotechnical set pieces, no planet-menacing super-villains and very little in the way of derring-do. Which is fine, theoretically. The picture feels a little more like a real world than the usual spy movie does because it’s set in one: the Cold War orbit of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, from its creation in 1947 to the colossal blunder of its attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961 — the first of the Agency’s many unsavory undertakings to become a public embarrassment.
Unfortunately, “The Good Shepherd” also feels very much (although not enough) like another, better movie: director John Irvin’s six-hour adaptation of John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which aired as a BBC miniseries in 1979 (and is now available on DVD). “Tinker” ‘s tone of drizzly introspection and bureaucratic droop brought a new, refreshingly downbeat spirit to the spy genre. Here, the secret agents and their handlers were seen to be as prickly and pompous and self-deluded as the general run of humankind, and generally blinded by the fog of deception and betrayal through which they stumbled. The picture also had Alec Guinness in one of the peak performances of his career, as spymaster George Smiley, and a supporting cast thick with typically gifted British character actors. Most important, “Tinker” had a fascinating story, based on the Kim Philby spy scandal of the 1960s, in which an English intelligence chief turned out to be a long-term Soviet mole who’d not only betrayed his country for decades, but also just about everyone else in his life.
“The Good Shepherd” doesn’t really have a story. It’s more like a corporate biography, inadequately related through the tight-lipped comings and goings of a completely inscrutable lead character, and with so much flashing backward and forward that anyone unfamiliar with the Cold War period is likely to feel lost. (It’s also a picture without a political perspective — an astonishing accomplishment in a film about a shadowy organization that, among other things, overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s.)
Robert De Niro had reportedly been researching the CIA since around the time he directed his first movie, the small-scale 1993 coming-of-age film, “A Bronx Tale.” When he was offered an original script about the subject by Eric Roth (who also wrote “The Insider” and “Munich”), De Niro agreed not only to act in it, but to direct it, too. So, as you’d expect, “The Good Shepherd” has drawn a cast of high-profile actors eager to work with the master; and De Niro has given them plenty of room to act around in. (The picture runs nearly three hours.)
Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a character modeled on the controversial (and possibly demented) CIA counter-intelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton. An idealistic young patriot from a civil-service family, Wilson is recruited straight out of Yale’s secretive Skull and Bones society in 1939 by a government talent-troller named Bill Sullivan (De Niro, playing a character based on the fabled “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the wartime spy shop, the OSS). These Yale scenes have a strangely lurid homoerotic overtone. We first see the young Wilson in full drag, taking part in a student musical revue. Later, during his Skull and Bones initiation rite, we see the inductees being made to fight each other while upperclassmen urinate on them from a balcony above. Then there’s the actual initiation, which requires the new members to lie naked on an altar and confess their most shameful secrets to the smirking Bonesmen sitting around them.
Whether or not such things actually transpire at Skull and Bones wing-dings is hard to say — most lifetime members (George W. Bush and John Kerry among them) refuse to talk about the group. Whatever the case, these scenes throw the Wilson character even more out of focus than he already is, especially when he subsequently shows no response to a hot young upper-crust girl named Clover (Angelina Jolie), who tries to seduce him. “Do you have a problem with women?” she asks. Good question. Is Wilson meant to be gay? And if so … what? The ambiguity serves no purpose in the story. (Just as oddly, Wilson is attracted to women with hearing impairments — deaf girls being the perfect companions, apparently, for a man with secrets to safeguard.)
Clover does manage to get Wilson to impregnate her, however, and her family leans on him to marry her. But no sooner is the ceremony over than Sullivan tells Wilson that, with World War II on the way, he’s putting together an overseas intelligence service “with no Negroes, no Jews and very few Catholics”; and that since Americans are new at espionage, he’ll be dispatching his new agents to England, where the Brits, with their centuries of experience among devious fellow Europeans, will show them the ropes. Wilson immediately packs his bags.
As the movie hops around in time, subsidiary characters flutter by, to little compelling effect. Alec Baldwin and William Hurt are both solid, as usual, and John Turturro, as Wilson’s aide, has a crackling interrogation scene. But Joe Pesci’s don’t-blink cameo (as a mob guy, what else?) feels like a De Niro favor for a friend. And Russian actor Oleg Stefan’s Soviet spy chief, code-named “Ulysses,” seems too amiable for a Cold War puppet-master. (George Smiley’s opposite number in “Tinker, Tailor,” played by Patrick Stewart without a single line of dialogue, was more memorable in every way.) In addition, the usually vibrant Angelina Jolie is almost totally wasted in this picture. She’s perfect in the beginning, when her character is supposed to be flirty and funny; but dialing down to play a sorrowful, discarded wife for the rest of the film is just something she’s not constitutionally equipped to do.
It’s hard to imagine how more effective use of all the supporting actors on hand could have saved this picture, though, because the lead character is a cipher. Matt Damon is so good at action, you wish he’d been given some here. Instead, buttoned up in his company-man suits and snap-brim hats and Clark Kent specs, he’s all inwardness, an impenetrable blank. His intermittent suspicions are a pale evocation of the raging paranoia for which James Jesus Angleton was notorious. But then Angleton, who briefly worked with the mole Kim Philby in London, was also a poetry scholar and an obsessive orchid cultivator — in short, an interesting character. Here, if nowhere else, he is mightily missed.
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