Tonight I went to a screening of The Good Shepherd (not to be confused with The Good German or The Good German Shepherd), which is supposedly the “untold true story of the birth of the CIA”. Assuming that’s the case, it was a rather drawn out, slow, and only somewhat interesting birth! Directed by Robert DeNiro (yes, him!), the film takes place over a 25-year timeframe, between 1936 and 1961. There are multiple flashbacks, but the film starts out with the Bay of Pigs incident in the 1960s, and CIA official Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is trying to figure out who in the agency leaked the operation. As he and his team try to find the leaker, we flash back to Wilson’s college days in the 1930s, where he meets and falls in love with deaf Laura (Tammy Blanchard). One day he is approached by an FBI Agent (Alec Baldwin) who asks him to spy on his poetry teacher, who might be a Nazi sympathizer. After he joins Skull and Bones, he ends up having a bit of a fling with Clover (Angelina Jolie), who gets pregnant. On his wedding day, he’s offered a chance to go to London to work with the OSS, and he agrees. Thus begins Wilson’s long career of intelligence and counter-intelligence.
After the war. Wilson finds out that he has a counterpart in the KGB – a shadowy figure known only as “Ulysses”. A low-frequency game of cat-and-mouse ensues, involving defectors, impostors, and misinformation. It’s all rather interesting, but it’s done so slowly and in such a pedestrian manner that you almost wish the film would degrade into an ordinary spy caper. There were plenty of things that they could have done better or in a more interesting way, but for some reason it felt like DeNiro was taking the safe route. Only the music and editing seemed to provide any real tension in the lengthy 165-minute film.
Another problem, given the film’s 25-year timeframe, was the aging of the actors. Actually that’s not fair, everyone does a nice job with it, especially Alec Baldwin who, when we first see him in 1961, looks genuinely older. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to do much of anything to Matt Damon, and when he’s interacting with his 21-year old son (Eddie Redmayne), you don’t believe at all for a second that these two men are father and son. Not for a second. Jolie as always gives a nice performance, and Joe Pesci has a very brief and notable cameo. But the problem with The Good Shepherd is that it suffers from bloating. What should have been an interesting spy thriller about the founding of the USA’s intelligence service ends up being a rather laid-back mosey through history. While it might very well be close to the truth, it’s not compelling to get people into the theaters to watch a dull history lesson. Tighten up the film, and you’re golden. In the meantime, if you want a spy flick, Casino Royale beckons.