With regards to its central protagonist, The Good Shepherd is a film at cross-purposes with itself. Robert De Niro’s epic take on the life of fictional U.S. intelligence official Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) during the formative years of the CIA (aka, the ‘40s and ‘50s) tries to cast its tale as one about a man for whom allegiance to country came before family and morality – and then to posit him as emblematic of our latter 20th-century government. The thing is, Eric Roth’s script seems thoroughly conflicted about whether it actually buys what it’s selling. Wilson is encouraged by Michael Gambon’s professor/English spy to ditch their line of work while he still believes (and has a soul), while Wilson himself later argues that the most important thing possessed by “his people” – namely, WASP members of Yale’s elitist Skull & Bones – is the United States of America. Such comments, however, are either red herrings or signs of confusion on the part of De Niro and Roth, as their film is, above all else, fundamentally not a portrait of a loyal soldier driven to ruin by faith in a just nationalistic cause. Rather, it’s one of an individual devoid of conviction, or even the basic ability to make a decision on his own.
The Good Shepherd consistently depicts Wilson not choosing his path in life, but merely agreeing to whatever others suggest or ask of him, whether it be issues involving marriage, government service, or the third-act crime perpetrated against loved ones. In this instance, however, the term “loved ones” deserves quotes, as aside from the deaf girl he romances – and then abandons – while enrolled at Yale, Wilson comes off as a cold creature free from the constraints of passion, sympathy, or notions of right and wrong. This emptiness of character in effect makes Wilson not a symbol of corrupted virtue but merely a vacant shell so lacking in “self” that his every action, every statement, is merely a reflection of someone else’s desire. In this tragic detachment from the world around him, Wilson is vaguely reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation. Yet in his second directorial effort’s decades-spanning scope, narrative attempt to render the personal as historical, gorgeously shadowy cinematography (by Robert Richardson), and recurring visual motif of closing doors, De Niro seems far more gung-ho about evoking another ‘70s Coppola masterwork: The Godfather.
Alas, it never reaches such lofty stature. Elegant, intermittently gripping, and anchored by an efficiently chilly lead performance by Damon (once again proving his skill at portraying blankness) The Good Shepherd’s main dramatic tension comes from its critical stance on Wilson’s principles (or lack thereof); otherwise, Roth’s script engages on a moment-to-moment basis but seems far-fetched and/or graceless in hindsight. Mild mystery is generated by its bifurcated structure – with Wilson’s 1961 investigation into a mysterious Cuban Missile Crisis-related photo and audio tape serving to break up the primary flashbacks that recount his rise to covert ops prominence – and De Niro’s use of constricting shadows and uncomfortable angles, though eventually overdone, proves an adept match for his trust-nobody story. Ultimately far less proficient, however, is the film’s pedantic analysis of the U.S.’s Cold War diplomatic ethos (replete with allusions to Guantanamo Bay-style interrogations), its devolvement from ambiguity into opaqueness, and, finally, its enervating juxtaposition of Wilson’s professional and personal lives, the latter sabotaged by clunky characterizations of his son and the horrid miscasting of the intense, striking Jolie as his miserable doormat of a housewife.