Speaking in Code

The Good Shepherd. Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, and Robert De Niro star in a film written by Eric Roth and directed by De Niro.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

High on its own sense of stealth and self-importance, the birth-of-the-CIA film The Good Shepherd is not a good movie. There are, however, many good things about it, including Matt Damon’s remarkable acting work — or, more to the point, his non-acting work. As an über-cool character, well-suited to a WWII intelligence agency and then in the CIA’s seminal Cold War work, Damon’s flat, affectless mug is scarily hypnotic.

In general, though, director Robert De Niro seems to have lost his way, making a seductive mess. Structured as an inside-outside, cross-chronological story, the film jumps back and forth from the bungled Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 to our hero’s induction into Yale’s Skull and Crossbones cabal in 1939, and his unfolding life as a business-suit spy and family man who’s not there, even when he is. Along the tangled narrative path, some plot elements seem to have been left on the editing room floor, while the overall film, a lumbering three-ish hour thing, desperately seeks editing.

A central plot point pivots around a murky film involving a spy’s love nest, a slowly unraveling mystery reminiscent of the key puzzle pieces in Blow Up and The Conversation. What The Good Shepherd doesn’t share with those earlier films, both explorations in surveillance and existential ambiguities, is an assured filmic voice.

De Niro himself appears as the mystical puppeteer behind the intelligence agencies, freely mixing his patriotism and taste for tactics with extreme prejudice. “I want the CIA to be the country’s eyes and ears,” he says, “not its heart and soul.” Others in the cast bring things down a notch or three: Billy Crudup has the worst British accent of the year, and Angelina Jolie puts in a lovely, bland performance, making us wonder if her greatest role is as a tabloid model.

Another of the film’s sins is its vapid, generic music score, which blankets the film and signals a presumed sense of suspense. Instead, it’s like a chorus of pesky flies in the room. In a few passages where Arvo Part’s profound music is introduced, the comparison to the bland Hollywood goop is telling. More time in editing, establishing a consistent tone, and calibrating the sensory elements of The Good Shepherd would have helped make it more gripping and relevant. At least we have Damon’s artful zombie performance to admire.

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