Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro
The Good Shepherd is not so much a study of the CIA as it is a character study. With the Central Intelligence Agency as a backdrop, director Robert De Niro looks at the lives of men who choose career over family, who brush imperfection under the carpet and maintain the perfect poker face as they use the people close to them as stepping-stones to the top.
The story revolves around Edward Wilson (played by a perfectly cast Matt Damon), who were introduced to as a university student in the late 1930s joining the secret Skull and Bones society. His childhood experience of hiding the truth for the sake of his family fits perfectly into the societys code of honour, and gradually hes introduced to the future founders of the CIA.
Switching between the wartime 1940s and the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s, we see Wilson excel as a spy as he gradually deteriorates as a human being. His secrecy and lack of emotion destroy his marriage and ruin his sons chance of happiness. Meanwhile, his paranoia grows to the point where he has no one to trust but himself.
Looking at Wilson, though, you’d assume everything was fine. Damon is excellent at portraying his emotional detachment – so much so, you end up wanting to punch him in the face just to get a reaction. He has the looks of a perfect spy – generic, grey and totally unremarkable. This causes problems with the time shifts in the film, though – are in we in the 40s or the 60s? No idea, Damon looks exactly the same.
Mirroring Wilson’s personal life are the cover-ups unfolding around him – the death of a Russian defector during interrogation, the CIA mole, the betrayal of his son. Even his marriage is a cover-up, the result of a one-night stand with a Senator’s daughter (Margaret Ann Russell, unconvincingly played by Angelina Jolie) who gets pregnant. One of the highlights of the film is when she confronts him about his infidelity in the middle of a party. She screams at him in tears, marches out, then everyone carries on as if nothing has happened.
This is not a fast-moving film, and if you want an action movie you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re after a thought-provoking study of one man’s demise – a man who carries, Hamlet-like, the seed of his destruction within himself – it’s right up there with Eric Roth’s other smash hit screenplay, Munich.
De Niro does a great job of bringing us into the world of Wilson’s paranoia, where we’re constantly seeing faces, signs, clues of an ally’s betrayal. It becomes easy to see why Wilson doesn’t trust anyone. And it’s tragic, but no surprise whatsoever, when – professionally successful but personally alone – the god to which he sacrifices everything eventually becomes his refuge.