The spy who bored me
The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd purports to tell “the untold story of the birth of the CIA,” and its star-studded credits reflect that momentous theme. It’s directed by Robert De Niro, written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich), and the cast includes Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci, John Turturro, and De Niro himself. With all this star-gazing, we half-expect Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt to turn up under one of those Cold War fedoras, or Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz to slink across the floor at one of those tony Washington dinner parties.
It certainly looks like one serious movie, judging by the epic length; the murky, dramatic shadows of Robert Richardson’s cinematography; and the furrowed brows and intense whispers of the actors. But underneath The Good Shepherd’s solemn surface beats the heart of a run-of-the-mill Cold War spy movie circa 1966. Or at least it would, if the movie had any heartbeat at all. Instead, it’s a dead-in-the-water hulk, with a plot structure that hops randomly around in time in a vain effort to make its simple and obvious story seem complex and subtle. It clocks in at a kidney-straining two hours and 47 minutes, and director De Niro handles every scene as if he were carrying nitroglycerin over a cobblestone street in high heels. To borrow from George Sanders in All About Eve, the minutes fly like hours.
Damon plays Edward Wilson, a fictitious character modeled on spymaster James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief from 1954 until his paranoia and loose-cannon behavior led to a forced resignation in 1974. Angleton would make a great subject for a movie—if anyone could figure out exactly what he was up to for most of his career. In any case, parts of Angleton’s life line up (more or less) with those of Damon’s Wilson: his poetry studies as a Yale undergrad, for example, and his fly-fishing hobby, which on screen becomes a penchant for building model ships in bottles.
Like Angleton, Wilson is recruited into the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor of the CIA. After the war, when the United States squares off against the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War, Wilson continues in the CIA, grappling with the shadowy world of a war nobody wants to go hot.
The movie opens in April of 1961 during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. From there we flash back to Wilson’s Yale days in 1939, then back further to 1925, when, as a child, he witnessed his father’s suicide. Then we’re back to 1939, where Wilson is recruited by a shady FBI agent (Baldwin) to spy on his pro-Nazi poetry professor (Gambon). Then six years in London with the OSS doing God knows what, neglecting his wife (Jolie) and son (Tommy Nelson, later Eddie Redmayne as Junior grows up). As Wilson grows more involved with outwitting his Soviet adversaries, he becomes increasingly cut off from his family, until finally put to a test he is doomed to fail. Through it all we time-hop like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five—from 1961 to 1939 to 1925 to 1961 to 1945 to 1961 to 1953, and so on.
The Good Shepherd seeks to trace the life of a man who, serving his country, makes one seemingly reasonable choice after another, only to lose his soul at last. This might work if we saw Wilson first as a carefree college kid, then a patriotic American heeding his country’s wartime call, and at last as a spymaster addicted to intrigue for its own sake and mistrustful of everyone. But as played by the ever-boyish Damon, Wilson is a gloomy mope from the outset, neither giving nor taking any pleasure in life. We can’t believe or care about his estrangement from a family he was never part of in the first place.
This gloominess is a conscious choice by director De Niro and writer Roth. Their movie takes place in a world where even the period background songs—“Blue Skies,” “Embraceable You,” even Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame”—are drained of any life or joy.
If De Niro and Roth want us to spend nearly three hours watching a character lose his soul, we have to believe he started out with one. The Good Shepherd is so full of shadows that we forget there’s any such thing as light.