The Good Shepherd Movie Review
Protection, loyalty and secrecy are the themes of Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, a sophisticated look at the beginnings of the Central Intelligence Agency. Matt Damon heads a stellar cast with his one of his best performances, and De Niro shows that he has the talent to make great films. Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd is only a good film thanks to the overly long running time and consistently slow pacing.
Damon stars as Edward Wilson, a brilliant young poet who is accepted into the secret Skull and Bones society and soon thereafter recruited into the world of espionage. As Hitler gains power in Europe, Wilson and his cohorts become masters of discovering the truth through any means necessary, even if that means losing touch with everything you hold dear. Wilson returns home after the war is over to live with the wife he doesn't love (Angelina Jolie) and the child he doesn't know, but his personal war is never over - the Cold War is starting, and a whole new kind of intelligence agency is needed.
De Niro pulls off nearly everything with the picture. Damon is fabulous as he brings to life a tortured soul who perhaps has feelings but keeps them so bottled up inside he never once shows them to the world. He gets better as the movie goes on as he allows his character to become more complex with every passing scene. One of the final shots, where he's hugging his devastated son, is absolutely classic - he may care for his son, but does he actually feel his son's pain or simply understand that his son is upset? Damon is also backed by an impressive secondary cast, which includes Jolie (who is surprisingly not in the movie as much as you'd expect), Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Joe Pesci and De Niro. Surprisingly, it is De Niro and Pesci, who, in cameo roles, are the least engaging.
The movie is beautifully shot, and De Niro takes his time with every scene, allowing each moment to become dynamic through character reactions, snippets of dialogue and emotion. The movie looks great and also develops a wonderful atmosphere that is rarely attained with other CIA films. The movie gives the CIA a more human and realistic slant, compared to the standard spy pictures you are used to. That being said, there is a fair amount of betrayals and other spy moments, though they don't necessarily play out in the way you'd expect.
The Good Shepherd is especially good in the last half hour, as many of the plot pieces finally come together and the emotional energy heightens. A quick montage where an important character is thrown out of an airplane, another is arrested and so on and so forth is captivating, to say the least. It is clear that De Niro was aiming to make The Godfather of CIA movies (the marketing campaign found a review that claimed something like this), but unfortunately he just misses the mark.
So what went wrong? De Niro, and his editor, failed to fully grasp the focus of the movie. It is clear the director loved every scene, as is evident by how long and tedious each scene is. The movie, at two hours and forty minutes, feels extremely long; a good twenty minutes of cuts could have greatly improved the pacing of the film and tightened it up considerably. The Good Shepherd is a complex beast, but De Niro failed to acknowledge what really ticks, at least in terms of what plays best to audiences, and left way too much extra stuff in the movie. There are some sequences that just go on and on and on.
The Good Shepherd is a well done movie that is certainly worth watching, but you really need an intermission to avoid fidgeting. The film aims big but misses the mark just a little; its pacing issues really limit its ability to become the classic De Niro so clearly wants it to be.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.