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The Good Shepherd
cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, and William Hurt

director: Robert De Niro

167 minutes (R) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Universal NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
Robert De Niro has made us wait a while for his second directorial effort and, in this reviewer's opinion, the lengthy spell of time between projects is more than justified.

In The Good Shepherd, what we have is, essentially, a fictional biopic of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a man who was deeply involved with the early development of the C.I.A. The film trawls through the recent history of America, following Wilson through the aftermath of the Second World War, the subsequent Cold War, and up to the Bay of Pigs, where the U.S. and Cuba almost sparked WWIII. Moving back and forth through time, telling Wilson's story in a series of tragic flashbacks, De Niro's style is assured and confident, and shows that he has learned well from masters like Scorsese and Coppola. In fact this film is almost a throwback to the great, thoughtful political thrillers of the 1970s, and all the more welcome for it.

Wilson is a student at Yale University when he is approached to join a secret fraternity called the Skull and Bones. His late father was also a member, and there is a long tradition of influential Americans linked with the group. This is the world of white upper class privilege and exclusivity; an 'old boy' network where no one is welcome unless they have the correct family credentials, and even then they must prove their worth.

Through his association with these like-minded individuals, Wilson is recruited to join the burgeoning C.I.A. and along the way falls into a loveless marriage with Margaret (Angelina Jolie) the sister of a friend and fellow society member. Wilson embraces his lengthy trips away on foreign placements as an escape from this relationship of convenience, and from the memories of his lost love, the blind Laura (Tammy Blanchard). The downside is that he misses out on the birth and early years of his son, Edward Jr. This neglect will demand a terrible price many years later, when, in the final third of the film, the focus shifts towards Wilson's relationship with his grown-up son (Eddie Redmayne), who chooses to follow in his father's footsteps and join the C.I.A.

We are guided through events that formed the basis of U.S. foreign policy, with disastrous spy missions and various convoluted political plots consuming Wilson's life to the extent that he becomes alienated from his family. He and his fellow spies are portrayed as bland, unattractive people, not James Bond type action figures. This is a depressing and sobering view into the world of international espionage, where an operative is more likely to have a potbelly than a Walter PPK and drive a station wagon rather than a souped-up Aston Martin. These people can afford to trust no one, and suspect everyone of betrayal. Theirs is a grey and lonely life, and the very skills that make them good spies also make them pathetic human beings.

As years pass and his colleagues either prove themselves traitors, double agents, or simply money-grabbing opportunists, Wilson is a calm yet terrifying moral fortress. The man is so detached, so utterly absorbed in what he sees as his duty that no one can get inside his defences. Even a brief reunion with Laura is ill fated; after a tryst, he sends his assistant Staff Sergeant Brocco (the excellent John Turturro), to return a piece of jewellery she left behind when they first met by way of saying goodbye. It isn't clear whether Wilson turns his back on Laura because she is his one weakness (earlier in the film, he is seen to ask of an enemy "what is his weakness"), or because he knows he cannot possibly give her the normal life she craves.

Matt Damon is outstanding in a difficult, un-flashy role. Wilson's persona is deeply disturbing, and the performance is all about nuance and subtlety. A look in the eye, a slight facial expression, a pause, a gesture… This is an acting master class, and continued evidence that Damon gets better with every film and is on his way to becoming a modern cinema great. There is also fine work from Jolie, De Niro (in a minor yet important role), John Sessions, the wonderful Alec Baldwin and a solid William Hurt, among a host of other familiar faces.

The film is, ultimately, troubling and thought provoking, with no flashy action scenes and a sedate pacing. Wilson's character is ambiguous, his motives are never clear. He seems to exemplify the type of man perfectly suited to his station in life. A man who gives nothing away, and takes nothing that is offered at face value, a good shepherd to his unwitting sheep. For those with the patience to allow it room to breathe, The Good Shepherd is an excellent film, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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