The Good Shepherd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am

The Good Shepherd

Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Robert De Niro

Director: Robert De Niro

The film: At nearly three hours, Robert De Niro's second film as a director (after 1993's A Bronx Tale) has all the hallmarks of an epic. There's the story's vast historical arc, which covers a world war, a cold war and a covert military offensive - the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Then there's the protagonist's rite of passage, as espionage expert Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) rises from being a bright light at Yale to founding the Central Intelligence Agency. And there are husband-wife and father-son troubles that Wilson faces as he repeatedly puts his job first.

All this makes The Good Shepherd more akin to The Godfather (in which De Niro starred) than Syriana (one of the defining moments in Damon's career), a sprawling political thriller that exposes the CIA's cynicism. And this is what makes De Niro's film a compelling piece of work: for all the portrayals of the organisation as a secretive machine bent on manipulating the course of the world for American interests, The Good Shepherd is also a vivid character study of a man who trades in paranoia so much that he becomes the alienated, friendless victim of his own craft.

At the centre of the action is Damon (right, with Angelina Jolie), who gives a measured performance as arch-manipulator Wilson. At the risk of blandness (Wilson, after all, is primed to be a poker-faced clerk), he does aloofness well, at once showing the internal angst and sangfroid of a spymaster.

In one of the film's defining scenes, an Italian-American collaborator-under-coercion (Joe Pesci) remarks that everyone has something to call their own. 'But what do you guys have?' he asks. Without missing a heartbeat, Wilson answers plainly and menacingly: 'The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.'

The games of espionage that De Niro interweaves throughout The Good Shepherd make the film a scintillating, slow-burn thriller, right from its beginnings with the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, which introduces the moles and double-agents who become a leitmotif. But it's the way De Niro plays a man falling deeper and deeper into the murky waters of pervasive distrust that gives The Good Shepherd its power.

The extras: Despite the wealth of espionage and CIA-related issues raised by the film, there are no featurettes or even interviews. The only bonus features are a series of deleted scenes about a subplot involving Wilson's brother-in-law working for the Russians.

The verdict: Although a bit drawn-out in parts, The Good Shepherd is a human film about the inhumanity that espionage spawns.