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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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