Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

The first film that certified legend Robert DeNiro directed was 1993’s ‘A Bronx Tale’.  A moving, but very simple coming of age story about a young man in 1960’s New York finding himself in a confusing time torn between his father, a gangster mentor and the love of a black girl.  Thirteen years later, Mr. DeNiro jumps behind the camera again with a movie that is about as far removed from ‘A Bronx Tale’ as you can literally get with the epic sized production of ‘The Good Shepherd’ a mythical telling of the formation of the CIA.

Matt Damon is Edward Wilson, hard working, stoic, unflappable Yale graduate and member of the secret Skull and Bones society.  In what seems to be a series of clandestine tests, Wilson is handpicked by the F.B.I. and some other spy agency headed by one General Bill Sullivan (DeNiro) to work in the intelligence bureau for the United States during World War II.  This was before he managed to knock up a school chums sister (Angelina Jolie) and cajoled into a marriage of convenience.  Off Wilson goes overseas, newly married with a child on the way to Europe where he learns the finer points of espionage and along with his right hand man Ray Brocco (John Torturro) he excels at it.

Years later The Bay of Pigs throws an awfully big monkey wrench in the CIA machine as it is obvious that there is a leak somewhere high up in the agency, and even the crazy loyal Edward Wilson isn’t above suspicion.  Wilson also receives a mysterious package with a distorted audio tape and some grainy black and white photos of a couple in the throws of passion that he has his best forensic scientist trying to decipher who is in the photo, what they are saying on the tape, and why they sent it to him in the first place.  He won’t like the answer he gets.

I noticed that Francis Ford Coppola is one of the executive directors of ‘The Good Shepherd’ which seems appropriate because the look, feel and even the tone of the film was very reminiscent of ‘The Godfather’ to me.  Now don’t think that ‘The Good Shepherd’ is a film on the level of ‘The Godfather’, just the look, texture and feel of the film.  Hell, ‘The Godfather III’ looked just like the ‘Godfather’ and we all know how that turned out.  However director DeNiro handles the subject matter with skill and a knowledgeable assuredness.  He allows the narrative to unfold quite deliberately, at times playing almost like a history lesson, at other times playing like a 1950’s noir thriller.  Though the film did run long at near three hours, and mind you that there was not a lot of action in those three hours, I rarely found myself being bored with it.  Rarely.  There were times though when the movie seemed to drag a bit, but those moments were few and far between.

A movie directed by Robert DeNiro, arguably the finest actor of his generation had best have some solid performances to carry it through and for the most part ‘The Good Shepherd’ delivers, since it seems you either had to have an academy award are at least be nominated for to qualify for a part.  Alec Baldwin, Joe Peschi, William Hurt, Billy Crudup along with Damon, Jolie, DeNiro and the best to actor to never be nominated for an Academy Award, Michael Gambon, DeNiro has at his disposal some of the finest in front of the camera talent available.  The film hinges however on the performance of Damon whose performance is a bit of a conundrum.  He plays Wilson largely as an unemotional stick in the mud who we have seen is capable of displaying strong emotions.  He just chooses to suppress them, and at all costs it would appear.  Rarely does he let those emotions display themselves, and even in those moments he is quick to reel them in.  I wouldn’t say that Damon’s performance was earth shattering by any means, but he did what was required of the character. 

Despite the Oscar worthy talent on display here, personally I was most impressed with two relative unknowns.  Tammy Blanchard who plays Laura, a deaf woman who is the true love of Wilson’s life, or at least he loves her the best way he can, and Oleg Steffan who plays the smooth operating Russian spy code named Ulysses who has an assured calm to his demeanor as opposed to Wilson’s forced self control.

All in all I found ‘The Good Shepherd’ a very intriguing film that easily could have been an exercise in boredom if wasn’t so expertly made.  It’s not a perfect film as it does slow down a bit, and some have mentioned to me frustration with its non-structured, non linear approach to story telling, though I didn’t find it distracting at all.  It’s too bad that Robert DeNiro the film director waited thirteen years before giving us another film, when he obviously has the talent to deliver behind the camera just as he has delivered in front of it.

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