Running Time: 167 mins
Rated: Rated M.
Film reviewing often boils down to a matter of taste, whatever the gloss put on it by reviewers themselves, and this is nowhere more evident than in the critical reception to Robert De Niro's epic spy story, The Good Shepherd. Touted as a history of the CIA, American critics have been the most savage in condemning the film, which has preoccupied Robert De Niro for nearly ten years. It has been called plodding, long-winded, and dreary. But for this reviewer, it is unreservedly recommended as informative, fascinating, multi-layered, and moving.
Scripted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich), The Good Shepherd moves backwards and forwards in time, beginning with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. This was a failed attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro which led ultimately to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. However, the film's object is not to become mired in the politics of the time. Rather it draws the veil on the clandestine activities of the United States' counter-intelligence agency (CIA), and charts its birth and development during World War 2 as the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an intelligence organisation that was active overseas, and operated in conjunction with the FBI.
This history, loosely based on facts and real people, is chronicled through the intricate weaving of a John Le Carre-style spy story, which has Matt Damon playing Edward Bell Wilson, a buttoned-up but principled and clever Yale undergraduate, who in 1939 is recruited by the OSS through Yale University's Skull and Bones fraternity, a brotherhood with powerful political and social connections.
Concurrent with this dense layering of fact and fiction are two on-going mysteries. The first, which is central to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, concerns a grainy photograph of a man and woman in bed together, and a reel to reel tape recording which has too much background noise to make out clearly what is being said. Wilson's job is to help decipher the tape, and establish where it was recorded. As he tells his second-in-command, Ray Brocco (John Turturro), 'There is a stranger (traitor) in the house.'
The second mystery concerns Edward himself. Half in love with Laura (Tammy Blanchard) who is deaf, but obliged to marry Clover (Angelina Jolie), a member of Yale's privileged set, because she becomes pregnant, Edward leaves immediately after their wedding to serve six years overseas in the OSS. On his return, he is a stranger to both his wife and the six-year-old son he has never met (Eddie Redmayne as the adult Edward Jr).
As a child himself, Edward was privy to his father's suicide, an event which has shamed and tormented him throughout his life. At the same time, it was this which inculcated in him a rigid probity, the belief that to be trusted in the world, one must never lie. How then, as his public and private lives become increasingly entwined, is Edward to marry his obligations to his country with the personal morality that defines and imprisons him?
The Good Shepherd is an ambitious project which succeeds. Although the storyline cuts backwards and forwards across time in long and involving segments, there is no sense of discontinuity or confusion. Emotionally too, the film succeeds, building to a powerful denouement that rings true, and is all the more affecting because of the film's overall coolness and restraint. Some viewers may be disappointed that some of the film's stars - De Niro as OSS military official Bill Sullivan, Alec Baldwin as FBI agent Sam Murach, Michel Gambon as a Yale poetry professor, and Joe Pesci as an informant - have minor and in some cases cameo roles to play. But this, it can be argued, is what gives the film its richness and credibility.
In the past, spy stories - fact and fiction - have concentrated on the secret societies and old boys' networks that were the recruiting grounds in Britain for such Oxbridge spies as Burgess and MacLean, and Kim Philby (the basis for the character Arc Cummings, played by Billy Crudup). The Good Shepherd provides an engrossing, in many ways sympathetic lens through which to view America's CIA.
Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.