"The Good Shepherd" is based on a celebrated Eric Roth script that famously made the rounds for years before finally being made by none other than Robert De Niro. It's his first directing job since his debut, "A Bronx Tale," in 1993.
The long gestation period was fortunate in one sense: A movie about the genesis of a CIA operative certainly is timely. But with all the news in the air about wartime covert operatives, I expected something more depth-charged than this freeze-dried spymaster dossier.
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is a Yalie recruited in 1939 to spy on his English professor (the wonderful Michael Gambon), a suspected Nazi sympathizer. From there he joins the OSS (the CIA's predecessor) and moves to London, then Berlin. His marriage to Clover (Angelina Jolie) takes a back seat to his skullduggery, and she and their son (Eddie Redmayne) suffer for it.
So does Wilson, though not so you'd notice. The problem with "The Good Shepherd" is that it's a closed-off movie about a closed-off individual. Wilson is inscrutable from the get-go, and remains so. Damon does subtle work within the narrowest of confines.
Wilson's passion is espionage, but his face registers none. He resembles a cynic's idea of a spy, devoid of the active inner life of agents in le Carré or Graham Greene novels. There's something punishing in the way this movie is engineered to keep us in the dark. The film itself is a covert act.
I did not expect to see Angelina Jolie, of all people, miscast in the drippy role of the suffering wife. Despite this and other lulus, "The Good Shepherd" does occasionally strike the right, creepy note.
The film's sole nod to romanticism – other than its depiction of a long-lost love of Wilson's, a partially deaf woman (Tammy Blanchard) – is its depiction of the CIA as a valorous organization that only turned ugly and paranoid when the cold war set in. But this may be wishful thinking: Wilson's youthful idealism is awfully creepy. Ratting out your favorite professor on spurious evidence may be the way to get ahead in the spy game, but it has moral consequences. (Then again, Wilson belongs to Yale's secret Skull and Bones Society, shown here as a coven.)
De Niro seems aware of those consequences, but turning Wilson into a hollow man is not a case of just desserts, since he was pretty hollow from the beginning. This sameness is reinforced by the film's confusing time structure, which begins in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, then moves to the late '30s, then goes back and forth as the cold war plays out. Wilson doesn't change much – he doesn't even seem to age, really.
Maybe this was the film's game plan all along: The spymaster as Dorian Gray. Grade: B
• Rated R for some violence, sexuality, and language.