Having outdone Bond in the Jason Bourne movies, Matt Damon returns to the cloak-and-dagger game with an entirely different sort of espionage drama. Damon's Edward Wilson is a secret agent, but he's a cold calculating son of a bitch that makes 007 look like a mere reckless playboy, and his movie is as careful and aloof as Casino Royale is brash and escapist. What The Good Shepherd lacks in action and excitement it makes up in relentless tension and good old-fashioned paranoia. In following the fictional Wilson from his recruitment at Yale's "Skull and Bones" society through World War II and the Bay of Pigs disaster, the film chronicles the birth of the C.I.A. and the rise of the American intelligence machine. There are enough crosses, double-crosses, shifting alliances, secrets and lies to fill a bookshelf of LeCarré novels, mostly spoken in a dense code language of "tailors and bakers." It's an awful lot of story for one sitting and at nearly three hours long it sometimes feels like a semester of history class. It's also a somber affair, with a methodic, almost funereal pace but it's never less than fascinating. As a frontline cold warrior, Wilson brings that icy chill home with him to a marriage that's as frigid as Antarctica. It's sort of hard to identify with a man who'd rather play hide-and-seek with the Russians than play house with Angelina Jolie, so radiant she makes simple housecoats look like a golden Hollywood glamour girl's wardrobe. With his buttoned-down intensity, Damon holds his own in a cast overstuffed with such acting heavyweights as William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon and Joe Pesci, all of whom drift through, splashing bits color in contrast to Damon's gray demeanor. Robert De Niro knows actors, but as a director his epic ambition outreaches his skill, if only slightly. He indulges in an overly complex narrative structure that makes more jumps in time than Marty McFly, and since Damon's frowning baby face remains essentially frozen in amber all along, it becomes hard to tell how old he's supposed to be from shot to shot. The resulting sense of dislocation, of never quite knowing where you stand, mimics the characters' confusion and keeps the anxiety level high, even at the expense of clarity. Though some have made comparisons to The Godfather, The Good Shepherd is also similar to Francis Coppola's paranoid classic The Conversation, where the hero spends so much time spying he loses sight of himself. Though it's set in the past, it's not hard to read the modern politics at work, with a government that manufactures enemies, a public that pays the high price of security, and patriots who espouse the shining dream democracy but know somebody has to do the dirty work to maintain that sparkle.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.