When it comes to cinema one often likes to believe in the fantasy, the lie with which we're presented, because the truth is usually much more mundane. So is the case with "The Good Shepherd", Robert DeNiro's meticulously crafted and deliberately paced drama about the spy world of the mid-20th century and the eventual emergence of the Central Intelligence Agency.
'Shepherd' dares you to embrace its decidedly cool approach. This glacially paced movie jumps back and forth through time and follows several often emotionless automatons indulging in the minutiae of real life spy work. These are not James Bond or Jason Bourne molds but rather glorified accountants working long hours of tedious surveillance, record fact checking, betraying people they call their friends, and ultimately sacrificing their souls in the name of duty.
It's a kind of spy thriller that hasn't been seen since the 60's & 70's. Back then Hollywood regularly churned out a range of great Cold War dramas based on the works of Len Deighton, John le Carre, Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. Movies like "The Ipcress File", "Funeral in Berlin", "The Quiller Memorandum", "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy" - even to some extent the first two James Bond films "Dr. No" and "From Russia with Love" - hold up to this day due to their cold, matter of fact and believable approach to espionage.
"The Good Shepherd" not only adopts this approach but tries to go even further, attempting to create an epic about the life of spymaster Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) on a scale more reminiscent of "The Godfather" than those more straightforward suspense thrillers. Jumping across time from the 30's through the 60's it encompasses multiple characters based on real life people, and whilst it does examine the big incidents of the eras and the craft of spying, for the most part it stays more focused on its characters than its technology or historical significance.
That may in fact be the film's downfall. At 157 minutes it's an almost painfully long movie, but much like Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" last year, there's a definite sense of much grander movie here that has been significantly trimmed. The result is a disappointing hybrid that's too bloated, diffuse and tedious to work as a regular length movie - yet has not enough emotional range or narrative focus to be considered a great epic drama.
Eric Roth's screenplay is surprisingly complex and far-reaching. In the film's runtime it manages to cover all sorts of important historical elements from Yale University's infamous Skull & Bones secret society, the OSS involvement during and after the Second World War, much of the power plays between U.S. and Soviet spies in the early days of the Cold War, and the fallout from the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident in 1961 in Cuba that frames much of the film. When it comes to the spy work it gets things right - the betrayals, the duplicity, the constant lies those involved tell not just each other but their wives, children and most disturbingly of all themselves.
Yet whilst getting much of the historical details right, it makes some fundamental flaws with its basic structure. As it is a character drama first and foremost there is little to no plot to speak of, and the whole framing device about a potential mole simply does not work. That leaves most of the heavy lifting to be done by the characters and yet all of them, especially Damon's introverted and solemn lead, are such blank slates that it renders much of the film inert as you simply don't emotionally engage with the movie.
The problem isn't the performances as such, Damon once again disappearing into his role and backed up by a host of strong talent all across the board, it's the way the characters are handled. Even major supporting roles are little more than cameos - minor players to the one-man Damon show. Joe Pesci and DeNiro himself make great but all too short appearances, John Turturro brings some spark and Michael Gambon does his usual fine job. Yet other notable actors fall flat such as Angelina Jolie who struggles with a shrewish slut turned stay-at-home wife, Alec Baldwin with a surprisingly dull role, and Billy Crudup armed with an atrocious British accent playing a thinly-veiled Kim Philby.
Damon shines with his work as the reserved and somewhat callous Wilson brimming with fierce but always in-check loyalty, honor and duty under his surface (he also makes for a good drag queen). Yet ultimately he has little to no dialogue and no real emotional arc. At times when the emotion does crack the surface, such as a brief love affair with a deaf girl to his moment of concern during Michael Gambon's fateful alley walk, it yields the film's strongest scenes - but these are too few and far between. The rest of the time both he and the film remain as cold and impenetrable as a lead statue.
It's a shame as there's a very good film in here - one far more literary than cinematic in its approach. It demands its audience not only pay attention but have knowledge of world affairs of the period - presenting them without any explanation for those who can't keep up. DeNiro once again shows he is a solid director with some beautifully filmed scenes and a very obvious attention to detail. Production values are sumptuous across the board. Yet this clinical, intellectual approach simply doesn't work as a character drama. Had Wilson been drawn as less of an almost deliberately enigmatic figure, it would've made the narrative much more accessible and ultimately compelling than the final result.