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The Good Shepherd

Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes (15-Minutes).

IT’S been almost 14 years since Robert De Niro made his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale a small, intimate coming-of-age tale set in New York.

But while many thought he’d given up on directing, the screen icon has been biding his time and carrying out research in order to fulfil his next ambition – to explore the intelligence services and examine how a group of largely anonymous men have come to control our world at both personal and professional cost.

The ensuing film is The Good Shepherd, an epic affair that reveals the beginnings of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from its origins in World War II as the Office Of Strategic Services through its expansion during the Cold War.

Rather than adopting a documentary-style approach, however, De Niro opts to follow the fortunes of one man – Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson – as he attempts to discover who leaked word of the planned invasion of Cuba in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, whilst simultaneously reflecting on his career and the effect it had on his marriage to Clover (Angelina Jolie).

The result is a very personal film that enthralls in spite of its failings and which has to rate as a sizeable achievement for its director.

The Good Shepherd is very much a labour of love for De Niro. It’s not about pointing the finger or exposing harsh truths, but rather paying respect to an institution and what it takes to be part of it.

The CIA is very much perceived as a necessary organisation, even if the men who populate it are forced to exist in morally grey areas – it’s the price to be paid for protecting the freedoms we hold dear.

How much viewers agree with this sentiment will go some way to determining how much they enjoy the experience.

For his part, De Niro neatly side-steps taking too many sides and his film exists in the same grey zone occupied by his characters – and suffers from an emotional detachment as a result. Just as Damon’s Wilson puts the Agency before everything, so he keeps everyone at bay – from wife and family to audience members.

That said, there’s still plenty to enjoy in watching the actor transform from wide-eyed idealist to shadowy super-agent. And while most of the “action” takes place in closed rooms, darkened corridors and via hushed phone-calls, the film remains utterly absorbing and even Coppola-esque in scope (Wilson’s emotional journey is strangely reminiscent to that of Michael Corleone).

It also draws on some terrific performances from an accomplished supporting cast, including Michael Gambon, as Wilson’s first spy victim, Alec Baldwin, as a chain-smoking FBI man, John Turturro, as Wilson’s right-hand man, and Oleg Stefan, as his Russian rival.

But there are flaws. De Niro clearly had trouble fitting everything in (despite a running time of almost three hours) and leaves other key characters dangling in the wind.

Angelina Jolie, in particular, isn’t afforded the screen-time she merits and is reduced to becoming a stereotypical moaning wife, while Billy Crudup’s English spy is also too one-dimensional.

Eddie Redmayne fails to bring any depth to the key role of Wilson’s son, appearing lightweight by comparison to the heavier thesps surrounding him. His scenes with Damon lack any real conviction and – rather like Sofia Coppola in The Godfather III – rob the film of the emotional kick it was seeking.

Eric Roth’s screenplay is a little too complex at times, making certain betrayals more confusing than necessary, while his decision to fictionialise key characters is also unnecessary (De Niro’s General Bill Sullivan, for instance, is a pseudonym for the real-life General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan).

But at a time when the CIA is under closer scrutiny than ever before (given the post 9/11 climate), The Good Shepherd provides an intriguing and thought-provoking insight into the origins of the organisation that holds plenty of relevance for every viewer.

It’s an impressive sophomore effort from De Niro, the director, and a nice companion piece to Bourne for Damon.

Read our interview with Robert De Niro

Read our interview with Matt Damon

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 47mins