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The Good Shepherd

USA 2006
Directed by
Robert de Niro
167 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

The Good Shepherd

Synopsis: Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a Yale student in the late 1930s, joins the secret Skull and Bones society. With his keen mind, adherence to secrecy and devoted belief in the American way of life, he is seen as an ideal candidate to be recruited to work for overseas intelligence (The Office of Strategic Services) during World War 2. The organisation he joins gradually develops into the CIA as we know it, and Wilson climbs ever higher in the ranks. As he battles his KGB adversaries, deals with the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs and countless other dramas, he gradually must choose between family and his career.

This marathon film uses as its framework the history of the CIA as seen through the prism of actual events, though most of the characters are probably more or less fictionalised versions of real people. The film seems to be creating some big differences between the critics – those who find it bum-numbingly boring and those who were totally fascinated by it. I’m what’s known as a spy-klutz – I never seem to understand what’s going on in these sorts of movies, but this one managed to seriously hold my attention and interest for its overly-long run time, so it must be doing something right. (Which still doesn’t mean I understood what was happening!!)

Firstly it employs an all-star line-up, although some appearances are so fleeting as to leave me wondering why more was not made of the particular plot thread. Damon plays a guy who seems to be almost an emotional blank canvas, with the exception of when he re-meets an early love of his life. His forced marriage to Clover (Angelina Jolie) is an emotional wasteland yet he seems to have no problems with keeping his affections on ice. Even with his son, played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne, Wilson is barely able to summon much emotion. It’s a sad testament to the sort of people who choose this type of career. So many other big players appear in brief roles: Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, Keir Dullea, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, William Hurt – the list goes on.

A feeling of authenticity permeates the film. It’s not a conventional spy thriller – it’s really about the genesis of the CIA as we know it (or probably don’t!) today, and its devious workings, in which nothing can be taken at face value, no-one can be trusted, and all speech is double-speech. As Wilson is constantly warned. “Nothing is as it seems!”

Structurally the film keeps our interest by hopping from era to era, back in time, back to the early 60s where it really begins, and taking us through a fascinating history of the key incidents of the Cold War. The constant reference point is a grainy scene of two people making love, with a mysterious woman’s voice saying “You are safe with me”, and “Lovers have no secrets”. This recurring motif is essential to the unravelling of a mystery that is at once personal, but also emblematic of the ruthlessness of the whole politically-driven organisation, where the idea of sacrifice “for the greater good” is paramount.

Many scenes are filmed in a way that truly captures the mystery and shrouded secrecy of the field. One shot of the men in their ubiquitous trench coats and hats, framed by bare tree branches, as they walk, talk and connive, really grabbed my imagination. Many of the period scenes, set in sumptuous old-school dining halls and libraries, are richly lit and atmospheric, and all is enhanced by the excellent costuming, impressive lighting and overall attention to detail.

De Niro, more known for his acting, is director of only his second film after A Bronx Tale. The story of the CIA had always fascinated him and when he received a script from Eric Roth, screenwriter of Ali and Munich, he knew this was the story he wanted to tell, a story of the forces that have shaped today’s intelligence world, but also of the personal sacrifices that those at its heart have to make.

If you’re up for it, and have a keen interest in the world of spies, The Good Shepherd is a worthy addition to the genre.




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