It's fitting that a drama trading in classified information would turn out to be such a cryptic bugger.
Screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump," "Munich") has peddled this script for years now. He based his protagonist on James Jesus Angleton, the Central Intelligence Agency's longtime counter-intelligence guru. Edward Wilson, the character played by Matt Damon in "The Good Shepherd," represents a more even-toned creation than his real-life counterpart, who by many reports was on fire with paranoia every second.
We meet Wilson in 1961, on the brink of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite "fairly certain" chances of success, the mission to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba fails. Any picture that sets its tone and direction this way is trying to tell you something about intelligence and luck and folly. The film then leaps back to 1939 to reveal Wilson as a Yale newcomer. He becomes a member of the famed Skull & Bones society. At the behest of an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin, steely beyond human measure), Wilson gathers some information on a literature professor (Michael Gambon) with possible Nazi sympathies. With his newfound, shadowy Skull & Bones cronies greasing the skids, Wilson slides easily into the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. He joins up for Uncle Sam and sees the world, albeit under extreme duress, and learns one thing above all: Do not trust your allies, let alone your enemies.
The CIA emerges out of that organization, and Wilson sacrifices nearly everything crucial in his life on the altar of intelligence: his wife (Angelina Jolie) and son (Eddie Redmayne) and his untrustworthy counterparts in England (Billy Crudup as a Kim Philby scoundrel) and the Soviet Union (Oleg Stefan as a slippery double agent). Even his own soul is not safe in the clammy atmosphere of distrust.
This spy in a gray flannel suit is like a parody of the mid-20th-Century organization man. Damon works hard and honorably, paring away every external trick and "tell" he can in the service of Roth's character. In truth, he's a little dull. Unlike, say, Gene Hackman's Harry in "The Conversation," you rarely feel this character falling apart by inches inside. And strangely, in the 20-years-plus time span of the film, Damon looks younger in his "older guy" getup, wearing horn rims and a fedora.
Jolie, by contrast, ages convincingly throughout, and is blithely unconcerned with how her brittle character is coming off in terms of audience sympathy. "You don't say very much, do you?" asks Jolie's character, named Margaret, upon meeting Wilson. His reply: "Only when there's something worth saying."
De Niro can relate. He directs the way he gives interviews: He doesn't elaborate on the essentials. His rangy spy saga, odd but not unrewarding, oscillates between murmured, hushed skullduggery and the eerie quiet of its central character.
De Niro also takes a supporting role, as a general touting the value of intel. He is wary, however, of the CIA becoming not "the eyes and ears" of the U.S., but "its heart and soul."
That warning holds today, and sometimes it takes a period piece to remind us of these things.
'The Good Shepherd'
Directed by Robert De Niro; screenplay by Eric Roth; cinematography by Robert Richardson; edited by Tariq Anwar; production design by Jeannine Oppewall; music by Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler; produced by James G. Robinson, Jane Rosenthal and De Niro. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:47. MPAA rating: R (for some violence, sexuality and language).
Edward Wilson - Matt Damon
Margaret Russell - Angelina Jolie
Sam Murach - Alec Baldwin
Laura - Tammy Blanchard
Gen. Sullivan - Robert De Niro
Arch Cummings - Billy Crudup
Dr. Fredericks - Michael Gambon