Never date a spy, much less marry one. That’s one of the important lessons (maybe the foremost) to be reaped from “The Good Shepherd,” Robert De Niro’s second film in the director’s chair after his debut “A Bronx Tale” in 1993.
Whereas his first was a compact, manageable story about boyhood in the Bronx, “Shepherd” is surprising for the grandiosity of its theme (the birth of the CIA seen through the eyes of one agent), scale (spanning three decades from the 1930s to the end of the 60s — World War II. the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis) and length (close to a whopping three hours).
It’s weighty, ponderous and self-important which can almost be a description of De Niro himself at times, but in this case, the adjectives have only positive connotations and are well-deserved (Who has a right to be self-important if not De Niro?) The film, on the other hand, flounders in its own sea of seriousness at times, and even the director’s excellent cameo performances of a conspiracy-mongering general (you know, the kind with a bad foot and a glass of whiskey permanently clutched in one hand) can’t quite rescue it from being swallowed up in the waves. But De Niro gets his point home, through his acting and directing: that spy-life is often utterly banal and aggressively ordinary. Typically, it’s years of drudgery punctuated by the exchange of manila folders that may or may not contain top-secret information. The general, for all his power, seems to hit the high point of excitement at Christmas, when he’s wheel-chaired over the eggnog and given a big cup. It’s said that Hitler’s regime succeeded so well because it was run by inconspicuous clerks, not hot-blooded military heroes — after “The Good Shepherd” you’ll believe it too. Wars and espionage are engineered by men who quietly, unobtrusively, relentlessly, tend to their flocks. Day after day after day.
Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, a Yale poetry major who was inducted into the highly exclusive Skull and Bones Society (notable for having both Bush Sr. and Jr. among its ranks) in his junior year, groomed for espionage and then sent to Europe to serve in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. This makes him one of the first to work as a CIA agent when the organization is actually founded. We see him over the years, unchanged in terms of looks (at 40-something, he looks like his grown-up son’s best friend), but inside he’s turned himself into a granite mass of unfeeling matter. Edward has always been sly, secretive and silent — at the age of 6, when he walks in on his father’s suicide scene and finds a note addressed to “My Family,” he pockets it and hides it from his mother and the rest of the world for four decades.
In college he’s not exactly Mr. Congeniality and never bothers to introduce his sweet, partially deaf girlfriend, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), to any of his fellow Yalies, much less to the Skull and Bones boys. (“Are you ashamed of me?” she asks.) He has no qualms about blowing the whistle on his poetry professor and mentor (Michael Gambon) for ingratiating himself to the Nazis. In short, he’s uninteresting, highly unlikable but can be trusted to do a job. It’s a mystery why a bombshell debutante like Margaret “Clover” Russell (Angelina Jolie in an extremely thankless role) would buttonhole him at a Skull and Bones party and after dinner forcefully straddle him among the bushes in the gardens (wow). Subsequent pregnancy and a loveless, absentee marriage follow — one week after their wedding ceremony Edward takes off for Europe and doesn’t return until his son Edward Jr. has turned 6.
Throughout his career, Edward hones his combo of quiet ruthlessness and freeze-dried discretion (his enemies in the KGB nickname him “Mother”) — ask him what he does for fun and he’ll probably stare you down with a steeliness hard enough to armor a tank. For this, Damon mutes every aspect of his star-boy persona, even sinking his clear features into a grim and expression-less marshland. Not once does Edward crack a real smile, laugh out loud or get passionate. His hobby is constructing little ships inside bottles, during the wee hours of the night.
The brilliance of “The Good Shepherd” is defined by the nonbrilliance of Edward Wilson. A drab nonentity who preferred to take the bus instead of driving to work, who spent evenings and weekends in joyless solitude, he altered the fate of men and governments, made and broke lives, kept the Cold War going (“otherwise, we’d both be out of a job,” observes his KGB counterpart), and plunged both his wife and his girlfriend (both sexy, beautiful creatures in their different ways) in deep, frustrated misery for years and years.
It makes the mind reel to puzzle over what motivated this guy — surely it couldn’t be justice or peace? Only once does he give himself away, sort of. An ex-Mafioso (Joe Pesci in a brief but meaty role) says to Edward that the Italians, Jews and Blacks all have some sort of mainstay in their lives, whereas WASPS like him — what does he have? Edward’s reply is quick and cutting: “We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”