The Good Shepherd gives him the chance to play yet another unsympathetic part, and just as he did in The Departed and The Talented Mr. Ripley, he lends magnetism to his character’s moral vacancy. Even when he plays the hero of the piece, as in Rounders and the Bourne movies, he often appears to be missing some essential human quality — how else could he be so cool under pressure? If not for his goofy comic turns in Dogma and Stuck on You, we might suspect that Damon himself was the one lacking a soul rather than his characters.
Here he plays Edward Wilson, a fictitious Yalie who’s recruited into a government spy agency while still an undergraduate in 1939. He promptly joins a Nazi-sympathizing student organization so he can inform on them, handing over a bunch of his colleagues and a beloved English professor to the FBI. After World War II is over, that spy agency becomes the CIA, and Wilson devotes his life to it with an intensity that burns up everything that matters to him, including his wife (Angelina Jolie).
That’s how it works in theory, though there’s hardly any intensity in this historical spy yarn that nakedly aspires to be a hollow man’s tragedy but is way too predictable to pull that off. Directed by Robert De Niro, the film doesn’t tell us anything about espionage that we didn’t already know from reading any number of spy novels. (You can’t trust anyone, you lose your soul, you’re a party to cold-blooded murder, etc.) It also purports to tell the story of the CIA’s early history up to the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the history is hard to distinguish from Wilson’s tepid family drama and the movie’s additional complement of fictional characters. Said characters aren’t interesting, either, and their blandness leaves in the lurch a large and handsomely appointed cast (Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, John Turturro, and De Niro himself). Jolie shouldn’t be playing suffering wife roles, to put it mildly, and while De Niro’s Goodfellas co-star Joe Pesci shows up as a Mafia boss who helps the CIA dicker in Castro’s Cuba, his cameo offers only a mild kick.
De Niro’s one previous directorial credit was 1993’s A Bronx Tale, and his contribution here is the best thing about the film. While he isn’t the most distinctive director, he gives cohesion to this sprawling narrative without letting the drama go slack. What might have been a deadly bore instead goes down pretty smoothly. Still, the film doesn’t leave any lasting impact, much less the operatic grandeur that De Niro is aiming for. The Good Shepherd isn’t a bad movie, but it’s 167 minutes of tasteful mediocrity. That summation isn’t likely to have you camping out by the ticket window.
The Good Shepherd
Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. Directed by Robert De Niro. Written by Eric Roth. Rated R. Opens Friday.