Story Highlights• Fine direction, strong acting, script make very "Good Shepherd"
• Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, career CIA operative
• Film takes its time, but accumulates power
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- The two movies virtually intersect at one point (in Berlin, 1945), but don't confuse Robert De Niro's lengthy, absorbing spy drama "The Good Shepherd" with Steven Soderbergh's black-and-white throwback "The Good German." The overlap probably won't help either of them at the box office, and neither looks like a surefire hit in that department.
But "Shepherd" deserves the chance.
Yes, it's a reserved study in emotional detachment. Yes, it's a serious-minded history of the foundation of the CIA. And yes, it's nearly three hours long. These are not the ingredients of a contemporary blockbuster.
Nor are the film's even pace, its oblique plotting and cryptic dialogue ("Rocking Chair is still smiling," says someone early on, which is about as on-the-nose as anyone gets). But, altogether, they make for a strong film.
As spymaster Edward Wilson, Matt Damon is closer to a dedicated civil servant than he is to Jason Bourne -- or James Bond. Wilson wears glasses, reads poetry and spends most of his time behind a desk. He gives nothing away, listens closely, speaks minimally.
His discretion is an obvious asset for a spy, but it's part of the point of the film that he was born and bred for the position: a WASP from a military family, he's inducted into the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale in 1939, and is persuaded that his poetry professor (Michael Gambon) is a fifth columnist soon afterwards.
From there it's but a skip and a jump to OSS training in London during the Blitz; Berlin, where he vies with the Soviets to recruit the brightest Nazi scientists; and eventually the invitation to head up the counter-intelligence unit at the newly minted Central Intelligence Agency.
"You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free" reads the inscription beside the CIA building entrance at Langley, a sentiment that raises a rare smile when Wilson sees it. Truth proves almost impossible to divine in a Cold War landscape Wilson's historical counterpart James Jesus Angleton famously described as "the wilderness of mirrors."
As for freedom, Wilson is so protective of the concept he scarcely notices how he's given up his personal liberty, sacrificing happiness and family for his country. He's an honorable man, but it's an open question whether such high principle is also a tragic flaw, even a kind of self-betrayal. Over 25 years, he will turn his back on the love of his life, do what is expected when a more appropriate blueblood (Angelina Jolie) becomes pregnant, and repeatedly fail his son in small ways and large.
Screenwriter Eric Roth ("The Insider," "Forrest Gump") has said "The Good Shepherd" began with an attempted adaptation of Norman Mailer's 1,300-page novel "Harlot's Ghost" for director Francis Coppola. Twelve years and numerous false starts later, the movie still bears a marked resemblance to the "Godfather" films, not least for the dogged manner in which it entangles family and business, the personal and the political, even as Wilson struggles to keep them apart.
The comparison is hardly to the new film's advantage (it sorely lacks regular eruptions of violence, for one thing), but the idea that men destroy themselves even as they build up empires is reinforced by these characters' power and privilege. The Corleone clan could only envy them.
De Niro has directed one film before -- 1993's modest "A Bronx Tale" -- but he shows impressive command here, as well as ambition. (He has also been smart enough to get Robert Richardson as his cinematographer.) Beginning at a clip with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, then going back to Yale (and, briefly, to Wilson's childhood), the film draws an absorbing portrait of a conscientiously opaque, intensely private character. It is Matt Damon's most refined and mature performance to date.
The stalwart supporting cast includes Billy Crudup as a British KGB mole, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, John Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton and De Niro himself as the four-star general who sets up the CIA as an old boys' network for Yalies, but admits to profound misgivings the film obviously shares: counterespionage is at best a necessary evil. One character suggests that's only half true -- that the Cold War was a politically expedient sham.
Angelina Jolie stands out because she's allowed to express the emotions the men have buried inside them, but in a strange way Wilson has closer relationships with two Soviet spies: a defector, Mironov (John Sessions), and his KGB opposite number, Siyanko, codename Ulysses (Oleg Stefan).
Perhaps "The Good Shepherd's" discreet tone occasionally works against its possibilities; a couple of shoot-outs and a chase scene or two might have been welcome. But it's the patient delineation of sympathetic adversaries and untrustworthy friends that makes this such a thoroughly engrossing picture. "The Good Shepherd" does not lack for power.
"The Good Shepherd" runs 167 minutes and is rated R. Click here for Entertainment Weekly's take.
Matt Damon plays CIA agent Edward Wilson, who puts the agency foremost in his life, in "The Good Shepherd."
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