Long on ambition but remarkably unspectacular, The Good Shepherd traces the origins of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) through the career of a man caught in the turbulent midst of it all. The grand intentions are admirable, but director Robert De Niro (behind the camera for the first time since A Bronx Tale in 1993) never quite gets his arms around the sheer scope of Eric Roth's script, which had been in development for at least 10 years.
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the ideal candidate for government intelligence: While a student at Yale in the late 1930s, he majored in poetry, which developed his ability to find hidden meanings in words and messages. When his poetry professor is suspected of running a secret German society, FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) asks Wilson to collect information about the goings-on. Edward's success leads to a Skull & Bones retreat in which he meets with the wheelchair-bound General William Sullivan (De Niro), who asks him to serve overseas in the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.
Edward's personal life isn't as successful. Although he's in love with a deaf classmate named Laura (Tammy Blanchard), he's forced to marry Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie) after impregnating her during a random tryst. But before he gets to know his new wife, he's off to Europe for six years, setting the precedent for a distant and unloving relationship with his family.
The film is at its best when it shows how the CIA evolved and how it functions, including its methods for collecting information and the importance of disinformation. Roth's research was undoubtedly extensive, but here the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump is so consumed with showing 25 years of political trickery that he and De Niro forget to make sure it's interesting.
For example, pivoting the story on Edward's involvement with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 (flashbacks illuminate how Edward got to this point) is intriguing, but the Bay of Pigs was a disaster for everyone involved with the CIA, not just Edward. To use a single event as a focal point is fine, but that point needs to have great significance to the main character, and the Bay of Pigs is just another (bad) day among many for Edward.
Another reason the film lacks solidarity is the casting of Damon, who is not a dynamic leading man. With the exception of his career-making Good Will Hunting, Damon has consistently failed to evoke much emotion in his dramatic roles. He can get away with this while playing Jason Bourne, a mole in The Departed or the childishly likeable Linus in the two (and soon to be three) Ocean's movies. But The Rainmaker fell flat because of his one-note performance, and The Good Shepherd almost does the same.
Granted, it's part of Edward's personality to be reserved, but that doesn't make him -- or the movie -- any more interesting. Fortunately, De Niro has surrounded Damon with a talented ensemble, highlighted by Michael Gambon's strong turn as the nymphomaniac Dr. Fredericks, Billy Crudup's clever British agent and John Turturro as Edward's assistant. The only person who seems lost is Jolie, an A-list talent in a thankless housewife role that's far beneath her abilities. When they say there are no good roles for women in Hollywood, this is what they're talking about.
There's a good movie to be made out of the history of the CIA, but The Good Shepherd is not it.
Now playing at Regal Entertainment Group Boise locations.