The Good Shepherd is the kind of film that a director, in this case Robert De Niro, makes more for themselves than an audience. De Niro is endlessly fascinated with the birth and evolution of the Central Intelligence Agency, but his film is such a mind-numbing bore that it is impossible to recommend. The movie isn’t two hours and forty-eight minutes because it needs to be; it’s that long because that’s how De Niro wants it. I guess when you serve Universal Pictures with a character in one of the most successful comedy franchises of all-time (Meet the Parents and its kin), you get final cut.
The screenplay, by Eric Roth, chronicles the formation of the CIA through the eyes of Edward Wilson (Damon). A member of the top secret Skull & Bones at Yale (which many key politicians are), Wilson is spotted early on as a man with the qualities needed to serve his government. He accepts the position, knowing full well that he’ll be separated from his wife, Margaret (Jolie), and son (Eddie Redmayne). Flopping back and forth in time, we see Wilson encounter the corruption that permeates the Agency and its rise to a global empire of its own.
De Niro sets a dry, but initially analytical tone that could have led to a solid suspense film. Instead, De Niro maintains the tone for nearly three hours and the screenplay never really develops Wilson beyond a one-note square. This makes it virtually impossible to care about his well-being, even when the convoluted story finally begins to crystallize in the final half hour. It’s one thing to lead an audience along and have a memorable payoff. Here we are never given a payoff at all.
As monotonous as the whole film is, I was intrigued by the recurring scenes involving the Skull & Bones as well as behind-the-scenes takes on the Agency’s operations. The most revealing and memorable quote comes in the final act, as a character explains why people don’t put “The” in front of CIA: “Do they put ‘the’ in front of God?”
The performances are frustrating. De Niro has a multitude of talent as his disposal but no one makes a solid impact. Damon plays Wilson as straight as can be. He could have been wearing a mask for all I know. The efforts to age him over the thirty years in which the story takes place are largely unsuccessful. He’s there, but nothing happens. Angelina Jolie is relegated to the whiny wife and William Hurt and even De Niro himself fail to break the mold the kinds of CIA guys you see in every other movie.
It’s difficult to call The Good Shepherd a missed opportunity because De Niro is a competent filmmaker whose interest in the subject matter does shine through. He has made the film he has played in his mind all these years, but it is a film that is not accessible to most moviegoers. I could see it improving with a second viewing, but I’ll be hard-pressed to give up another three hours on this. My hunch is that you’ll feel the same way.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 168 Minutes
Rating: R for some violence, sexuality and language.
Theatrical Release: December 22, 2006
Directed by: Robert De Niro
Written by: Eric Roth
Cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro