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December 28, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | December 28, 2006 |

Robert De Niro is 63 years old. This is important to remember when approaching The Good Shepherd, a thriller without any thrills that nevertheless manages to be quietly enthralling. The film deals with the rough conception and bloody birth of the CIA, spanning from America’s isolationist heyday in 1939 to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the rise of the Cold War. It’s easy to see how a younger filmmaker would have turned out a glossier version of the same events, or a younger screenwriter — Eric Roth is also 63 — would have inserted action sequences at the expense of emotional drama. But De Niro is rapidly approaching the country of old men, and his age allows him a pensiveness for his second directorial outing, an ability to meditate on the fantastically intricate story as it gradually unspools, that elevates the film from a standard tale of political intrigue into an almost operatic vision of despair and damnation as America takes the reins to become the world’s greatest superpower. That sweep almost does the film in, though: It feels every single one of its nearly three-hour running time, and many scenes could have been trimmed to tighten the pace without relinquishing the emotional resonance. Yet plodding though it often is, the film is peppered with moments of quiet brilliance and beauty. If it falters, it goes down swinging.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), based in part on the real-life figure James Angleton, is heading up counterintelligence for the CIA during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. De Niro takes his time with the story from the very beginning; Wilson’s methodical patience assembling ships in a bottle is a reflection of the director’s desire to tell the story his way. The botched Cuba operation means someone’s gonna swing, and on top of this, Wilson also receives a mysterious package containing a blurry photo of a man and woman in bed, accompanied by an audiotape of a fragment of their conversation. At which point the action cuts back to Yale University in 1939, when Wilson was an undergrad recruited into Skull and Bones. The divergent timeline presents a couple of problems De Niro doesn’t quite resolve: Without spending enough time establishing the 1961 characters and setting, the inherent drama behind the photo and tape is blunted, and De Niro never quite establishes a consistent, specific throughline that will tie together the multiple storylines, other than that they involve all the same people doing all the same things and leading increasingly depressing lives. Wilson meets Laura (Tammy Blanchard) at school, and their burgeoning relationship allows the shy young poetry student a rare opportunity to smile and express himself. As the war begins to swallow the outside world, Wilson and Laura, who is deaf, do their best to shut it out and try and fall in love like normal people; there’s a scene where they dance at a club while he softly sings her the song she can’t hear that’s fraught with heartache and remorse and doom as could only come from a filmmaker looking back a great distance at life, and it’s compelling to watch.

Wilson winds up marrying Margaret (Angelina Jolie), the sister of one his fraternity brothers and a member of the high society that aims to quietly rule the country and the world from behind the throne. And from there, the film hits an odd kind of narrative standstill: It’s not that things stop happening, but that events feel disconnected from each other, as if the scenes aren’t happening because of each other but simply because they exist. Wilson’s present-day investigation into the mystery tape is spread over the week following the Bay of Pigs, and the slowly (often very, very slowly) progressing history of his growing involvement with the newly formed intelligence agency spends most of its time in the 1950s. Wilson is tapped to head the counterintelligence sector by General Bill Sullivan (De Niro), a crippled warrior who clings to a patriotic hope of a just government, a view that fewer of his colleagues seem to share, as America enters the long slog to global supremacy against the Soviets. He works with Britain’s Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup) and his own assistant, Ray Brocco (John Turturro), to try and beat the Russians when it comes to spying and nation-building. His Soviet counterpart is an operative codenamed Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), and Wilson and Ulysses share a few face-to-face meetings over the years. The normalcy with which these two men go about their lives of espionage is a welcome difference from the slambang world of most filmed spy thrillers; it’s much easier to believe in De Niro’s version of things, with its plausibly bleak and endless series of double-crosses and lies that are second nature to such characters. There’s an impressive casualness with the way these privileged white men go about drawing lines and dividing up the world, as if it’s all just an extension of the games they played as younger Bonesmen.

Unfortunately, De Niro never quite develops the relational tension between Wilson and Ulysses, and what could have been a near epic story of two men spanning decades sometimes just feels like, well, two guys playing war games. Damon is enjoyably reined in as Wilson, a caring man with no idea how to really express that caring to those who matter to him. After a point, though, his reserved nature comes across as forced, more stilted by intent than muted by actual personality. He never matches the mix of anguish and determination as when he’s young and with Laura, and their scenes together are the film’s strongest. Lee Pace is fantastic and underused as Richard Hayes, another fraternity brother and Wilson’s superior at the agency, whose cold commitment to furthering the nation’s needs at any cost make him as intriguing a villain as Ulysses. The rest of De Niro’s packed cast are also convincing in their roles, from William Hurt and Michael Gambon to a virtually unrecognizable Joe Pesci, who could have a whole new career as a jaded old man in character-driven pieces.

Despite its roster of stars and worthy storytelling, The Good Shepherd remains a brutally cold film; emotionally, it never progresses beyond its opening scenes of Uncle Sam’s blissful isolationism. But if its reach exceeds its grasp, that’s only because De Niro is trying here for something bigger than he’s ever done, and he succeeds more than many other filmmakers could have with such sprawling and dizzyingly complex material. But the title is ultimately misleading: The good shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his flock, but Wilson would never do anything so selfless. When he says to Ulysses that he doesn’t want another war, Ulysses responds, “What would you do for a living then?” It’s clear from his eyes that Wilson doesn’t know what to say.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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