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The Good Shepherd

Rated R, 160 min. Directed by Robert De Niro. Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, Michael Gambon, Keir Dullea, Tammy Blanchard, Gabriel Macht, Timothy Hutton, Robert De Niro.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 22, 2006

The Good Shepherd Damon here abandons the cat-and-mouse theatrics of his Bourne identity to play Edward Wilson, the reserved fictional functionary whose life serves as the prism through which The Good Shepherd examines the early years of the CIA. Damon plays Wilson as a tight-lipped, button-down professional, the kind of bright and dependable guy the WWII-era OSS and later the fledgling, postwar CIA would recruit to oversee their shadowy and covert spy operations. There's fascinating material here in this behind-the-curtain look at the early formation of our nation's spy agencies. Screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich) has clearly done his homework, and episodes such as Wilson's college initiation into the secret Skull and Bones Society (the breeding ground for future presidents and captains of industry) and the group's private retreats to Deer Island are imbued with the sense of observing something strictly off-limits to the rest of us commoners. Despite successfully creating the illusion of forbidden glimpses, The Good Shepherd slogs through most of its lengthy running time. In his second turn in the director's chair, De Niro (who also has a cameo) is unable to marshall this film into an effectively told narrative. Adding to his difficulty is the film's nonlinear structure, which jumps around in time for scenes from Wilson's childhood, his recruitment in 1939 during his college career, years spent in Europe during the war, years spent at the CIA's Langley headquarters, the Cold War, and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The out-of-order sequencing adds little in terms of thematic structure, and thwarts all attempts to get swept up in the film's narrative flow. Further muddling the cloak-and-dagger dynamics is a wholly melodramatic storyline about Wilson's loveless marriage to Margaret "Clover" Russell (Jolie), the sister of a college classmate who maneuvers Wilson to the altar. Although you might anticipate any marriage portrayed onscreen by Damon and Jolie to sizzle with sex appeal, this affair droops with disdain and indifference. The marriage is a marked contrast to the passion we witness in Wilson's college romance with a deaf girl named Laura (Blanchard, in a marvelous performance), which provides a hint of what might of become of this man if the government hadn't gotten its hooks into him first. Only Turturro, playing Wilson's streetwise adjutant, adds any personality to this drama. Certainly, the absence of personality that's required for the job but is ruinous to family life is one of the film's primary points. The conundrum, however, is how to make a movie about close-to-the-vest characters without making a movie that's drained of all life. A section of the film concerning Wilson's grown son makes the rigors of the clandestine life all too clear, but it comes too late in the story and serves mostly as a reminder that the thorny relationship between fathers and sons is as central to this movie as it was in De Niro's first directing job, 1993's A Bronx Tale. Like Wilson's hobby of building little ships in bottles, these good shepherds know how to keep their innards reined in while never solving the bigger mysteries of how and why.
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