330 – The Good Shepherd

Robert DeNiro’s ambitious, fictionalized account of the creation and early history of the CIA is intelligent and well intentioned, with superb casting. Its most prominent debit is in the casting of Matt Damon as its lead, Edward Wilson, the young man at the crux of the genesis of the counterintelligence agency.

The quiet, unassuming Wilson is a straight-arrow Yale student, part of America’s upper crust, who vows to do good in the world after his father commits suicide, thus making him an easy recruit for a US general (DeNiro) who is planning a new, covert intelligence service after World War II. Wilson is stationed in London, and his cipherlike demeanor allows him to run counterintelligence for the US there, as German and Russian spies (and others) jockey for position in postwar England.

The movie is bookended by the leadup to the infamous Bay of Pigs incident in 1961. There has been a leak on the US side, alerting Fidel Castro to the upcoming invasion, and Wilson must determine the source of the leak. All he has to go by is a hidden-camera film and some murky audio; he doesn’t know where the film was recorded, and he doesn’t know who the speakers on the audio are.

As 1961 Wilson – by now, a seasoned espionage agent – tries to suss out what has happened, we flash back many times to his own early beginnings, how he met a young woman named Clover Russell (Angelina Jolie), how he was found by Phillip Allen (William Hurt) by way of the notorious (if it actually exists) Skull and Bones society at Yale, and how the relationship between Wilson and his son Edward, Jr., progresses over the years, as his dad is rarely home (he’s gone for the first five years of Junior’s life, actually).

The movie works not because of Damon but because of the trenchant, complex plot dreamed up by Eric Roth. This is a movie that takes a driving force of a character’s personality – i.e., Wilson’s patriotism – and turns it around in order to both buoy the character and bring about his downfall. Anyone as single minded as Wilson is in this movie is going to face a rude comeuppance, but at the same time his tenacity at doing the Right Thing for America, his unwavering decency, is held up as a laudable ideal.

The problem with Damon is the same one that’s followed him throughout his career; he constantly looks unable to provide the panache that these meatier roles demand. In a sense, that’s not a terrible thing here, as Wilson’s unreadable countenance is perfect for a superspy: does the lack of expression mask myriad possibilities, or does it simply mean there’s nothing to be seen? A more competent actor can essay a thousand thoughts without uttering a word, but with Damon one just thought there was’t much there to begin with.

He’s surrounded by a very able cast, though, helping matters considerably. Jolie sparkles in the few scenes in which she appears as Wilson’s wife, as do DeNiro, Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, and Timothy Hutton. Perplexingly cast was the marble-mouthed Eddie Redmayne as Edward Jr., who’s as dull-looking and unintelligible as his onscreen father is hunky and articulate. It’d be easy to ignore this casting faux pas, but Edward Jr. plays a big role in the final twenty minutes of the movie, sadly.

Another caveat: Although the movie covers a couple decades in time, Damon never ages all that realistically. Sure, he has a couple of crow’s feet, but that’s about it; oh, there’s the time where he’s inexplicably wearing what appear to be women’s eyeglasses. (No, he’s not undercover.) It’s kind of funny (unintentionally) when you see the senior and junior Edwards near the end of the movie, and Junior looks about as old as his old man. They couldn’t even pack a few more pounds on Damon? Give him a paunch, a stoop, anything? No, apparently we’re supposed to go by the passage of time to show his aging, although everyone else seems a bit older – and wears it well (see, in particular, Jolie, who’s absolutely wonderful, no matter her character’s age).

The Good Shepherd is a bit too long, although the story itself is well told. A good solid cast and a followable plot make this mostly enjoyable; it loses points for unbelievable casting and the usual so-low-key-he’s-almost-invisible performance by Damon.

***

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