“Inert” is not a word Robert DeNiro would look for in a review of The Good Shepherd. “Bloodless” isn’t what Bob had in mind. This is movie made so determinedly in the Oscar-contender tradition (carefully ticking each box, dutifully employing every Best Actor Oscar winner, never showboating, never De Palma-ing lest it might incur the wrath of stolid Academy voters) that to use anything but “masterpiece”, “powerful” and “The Godfather of spy movies” seems churlish, spiteful even. But The Good Shepherd is not The Godfather of spy movies. It’s more like an Open University course in spy movies; a know-all with no sex or drugs.
Of course there is sex in The Good Shepherd – but what a chore it seems. People are not allowed to fall merrily into bed if they are high-up in a nascent spy organisation (so I learn). They must Suffer or feel Nothing, like souls in purgatory. The movie’s approach to sex is a good guide to how DeNiro views his potentially salacious material; it must be purged of anything that speaks to the heart, or to the loins.The Good Shepherd should be a story that rivets viewers. It’s about the founding days of the C.I.A., for heaven’s sake. That’s the movie equivalent of writing an autobiography of the devil.
Matt Damon plays a young Harvard poetry bod enlisted into the sinister (and sado-masochistic) Skull and Bones fraternity during the 1930s. He is a guileless, but observant W.A.S.P., bred for privilege and duty (as he explains to an incredulous Joe Pesci when asked what his people have that equals the Italian devotion to church and family: “We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”) and he soon finds himself sought after by surrogate father-figures hell-bent on monopolising national security. In due course he is indoctrinated into the murky world of espionage, first through the O.S.S., learning from the Brits how to lie and make secret-keeping an art form, then on to the founding of the C.I.A. proper, where meddling in the world’s affairs is made part of American doctrine.
Lots of terrible, thrilling things happen over the course of The Good Shepherd’s two and three-quarter hour running time: we see men assassinated, government’s coup-ed, friends and lovers betrayed, ideals corrupted. And it isn’t that the cast does these events a disservice. Witness John Turturro on brilliant, blunt and dangerous form as a C.I.A. enforcer, professionally tetchy with the world. Michael Gambon plays the aging British spy master like the embodiment of a dying Empire: gracious, haunted, rueful of pitfalls. Angelina Jolie is solid as a woman understandably bemused at how her husband would rather ape James Bond than act like him (in the bedroom). Bill Hurt is as Bill Hurt has been since he emerged from retirement: cerebral (as he always was), but shifty now, one eye on something outside the frame.
No, acting isn’t what sinks The Good Shepherd. It’s vision this movie lacks. Though it spans thirty years, one World War and the birth of an American empire, this is a movie that never tells you anything about the C.I.A. that you wouldn’t know going in. So America engineers world events to suit its own agenda? We know. And those who do the engineering lose their souls in the process. So what? If the spooks we’re asked to care about seem lacking in souls to begin with, who’s to mourn their loss? – Who evens notices? It’s as if someone very boring was told a story of murder and intrigue, and then that someone repeated the story back with all the colourful events rendered in taupe.
The bastards deserve better.