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December 26, 2006 > The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd

by Jeremy Inman

The Good Shepherd is a big movie in every sense. It is set to a massive scale, covering a lot of ground, spread out over a long period of time, as well as having a huge cast and one of Hollywood's giants in the director's chair for his second official time: Robert De Niro.

Shepherd tells the origin of the CIA through the perspective of its fictitious first Director of Counterintelligence, Edward Wilson, as he balances his unrelenting desire to serve his country with the emotional trials of his everyday life. At Yale, he is inducted into the Skull and Bones Society, a private club of rich socialites perpetuated throughout the generations as a sort of inheritance ritual for government hopefuls. There, he makes the appropriate contacts to land his first assignment in counterintelligence, which takes him overseas during World War II.

His work in the field continues throughout the cold war, including the American failure at the Bay of Pigs. Wilson discovers a plot to link him with an intelligence breach of the failed operation and attempts to discover the source.

The film is told with intercut segments; one segment recaps Edward's induction and early training, while the next takes place following the failure in Cuba. Wilson is obviously a radically changed man by the time the narrative catches up to itself; the flashback sequences are appropriately timed to maximize the emotional effect, even if they do make the film just a bit convoluted. These segments portray an emotional struggle as Edward tries to navigate the pitfalls of life mixed with good old spy espionage intrigue.

The mixture plays out nicely. This is due largely to very competent direction on De Niro's part and excellent performances from big names like Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Joe Pesci (in his first movie since '98) and especially Matt Damon. Damon was a good fit for the role of Edward given his tendency toward quiet, stoic performances. It's nice to see Damon branch out every now and then and do an Ocean's Eleven or a comedy like Stuck on You, but this type of performance is truly what he does best: serious flicks with Oscar potential.

He was able to convey both the youthful exuberance of a countryman eager to serve, and the quiet, meticulous resolve of a man who's been too long at work in a field where no one can be trusted, and almost nothing is true.

The message seems to be that the life of a CIA operative is hollow and unfulfilling, leaving little room for any sort of emotional attachment and absolutely no semblance of trust. Needless to say, this is not a feel good picture. Few, if any, of the characters are actually likeable. You'll understand exactly why Edward makes decisions that he does, but you won't like him for having to make them, and you'll like yourself even less for agreeing.

Overall the film is mesmerizing. De Niro brings an old school flare to the table which fits nicely with the content of the story. The shot compositions are clean and by the book; the performances are as towering as they need to be, much like De Niro's earlier work. It will be interesting to see how De Niro transitions from lead actor to the man behind the performances in the next generation of filmmaking. Hopefully he'll continue to lend his influence to big pictures like this leaving an even larger lasting impression on the filmmaking community.

If he keeps making films like The Good Shepherd, we can expect more good things out of Robert De Niro, both in front of and behind the camera.

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