The Good Shepherd
With the possible exception of the Motion Picture Association of America there is no other organization that operates in the cloak of secrecy like America’s Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. Aside from the covert operations in foreign lands the CIA has been the basis of an untold number of plots in film, television and literature. The Good Shepherd is the latest in this long line of CIA related stories with a novel twist. It chronicles the origins of this ultimate cloak and dagger organization. As with most such tales it is important to note that this is not intended to be a factual account, it is a piece of fiction, albeit a really good one. If you want facts read a book or tune into the History Channel. If you are in the mood for a good old fashion espionage thriller then you have one with this film. Instead relying on the strange gadgets and over the top action like all too many modern spy flicks this one is more of a psychological thriller. It looks at fear, paranoia and distrust on a human level. There are more realistic agents not the double ‘o’ wonders that most in the audience have grown up watching. This film is driven by plot twists and characters. The actors are more important to the presentation than the stunt man union.
The film begins in 1961 where Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) seems to be a typical business man. When a strange asks for change of a dollar it would appear to be just a normal occurrence. Actually, the bill’s serial number holds the key to decrypt a secret message. Wilson is an operative for the CIA. The story spans several decades through the use of numerous flashbacks. In 1939 Wilson was a student at Yale University where he was a member of the secret society, the Skull and Bones Brotherhood. The Skull and Bones has been a tradition in Yale for almost a century at that point. The members or bonesmen represent the riches, most powerful men in the world including a list that includes presidents, senators and other power brokers. Men in this organization have very specific qualifications, they come from the ‘right’ families, know how to wield power and most of all can be trusted to keep a secret. While on a Skull and Bones retreat Wilson meets two people who will change his life. First is a girl named Clover (Angelina Jolie), the other General Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro). Wilson is actually already interested in another girl, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), but circumstances arise that has him wed the pregnant Clover. The ink on the marriage license is barely dried when Sullivan offers Wilson a job with the Office of Strategic Services with a posting in London. Although the assignment is only suppose to be for a week or so Wilson stays for six years. While there Wilson is given an elaborate education in the fine art of espionage. Moving forward in time to the cold war Wilson is now a seasoned agent. By this time the OSS has been replaced by the CIA and Wilson was there to get in on the ground floor. The post war intelligence community consisted primarily of two sides, the Americans and the Soviets. Both sides are desperately after the top Nazi scientist for the burgeoning arms and space races. About this time Wilson is reunited with his wife and meets his son, Edward Jr., for the first time. Being a top operative is not exactly conducive to being the ideal dad. When the boy grows up he attends Yale and becomes a bonesman. He also wants to follow in his father’s footsteps in his chosen profession. Wilson councils his son about the personal and emotional sacrifices the intelligence field demands but the young man is unwavering about his decision. Throughout the film there are plots, subplots and more machinations that you would have believed possible. Wilson is not the carefree spy like James Bond. He is haunted by his past and worried about his future in a field where surviving the present is all that really matters.
This film is the sophomore work of one of the most acclaimed actors in history, Robert DeNiro. Now here is a man who truly loves the art of cinema. Not only has he acted in some of the best films ever, is directing but he has helped to create the Tribecca Film Festival here in New York City. This film is obviously a labor of love for DeNiro, apparently he has been working on it for almost a decade. His style of direction here shows his acting roots. As a director he affords his cast ample opportunity to display their skills. DeNiro also demonstrates great knowledge behind the camera. The setups and framing are incredibly accurate; each one done to perfection. The use of lighting enhances the mood and emotional themes but never overtakes the shot. With a running time of 167 minutes it could have been tightened up somewhat in editing. Albeit there is a lot of exposition here but after the main mystery is resolved the film tends to run on. The key to why this movie works is it does not cover the same old spy flick faire. By showing the origins of the CIA through the eyes of a man who would eventually rise to the director of covert operations is brilliant. Many may be disappointed since there no big special effects shots here, just pure human emotion.
With someone like DeNiro at the helm you can be sure that he can get a pure A-List cast and he did. Matt Damon is becoming the go to guy for spy films. In a departure from his Bourne films here he gives a more cerebral and psychological performance. With the help of some makeup Damon is able to show his character through the decades. He plays Wilson as a man who came from privilege, attending the right schools, belonging to the best organizations yet he gives up much of his personal life in order to serve his country in a unique fashion. Damon amazing control in his performance here, he is a man well versed in his craft and an incredible actor to watch. Angelina Jolie does very well as the belabored wife of a spy. After playing a married spy in the far more action oriented ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ this is a great change of pace film for her to stretch her acting abilities. Robert DeNiro does something that has to be extremely difficult, directing himself. Once again he gives a great performance as one of the men who moved the OSS into the new age of the CIA.
Once again Universal Studios brings a film to DVD with expertise. There are two variations so far, a Pan & Scan as well as a widescreen version. Lets not even about the P&S variation, you want to see every detail of each frame. The widescreen version is in an anamorphic 2.40:1 video. The color palette is amazingly well balanced. The contrast is perfect especially in scenes that juxtapose light and dark elements. The Dolby 5.1 audio is robust with excellent channel separation. The disc is light on extras with about 16 minutes of deleted scenes to offer. This is well worth adding to your collection.