The Good Shepherd is a buttoned-up, shadowy dramatic recounting of the early days of the buttoned-up, shadowy Central Intelligence Agency. Here, the entire CIA is embodied by a zip-lipped, fictionalized founding operative named Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). Normally I would assume that such a pronounced tonal echo of the hush-hush subject matter is deliberate on the part of a director as serious-minded as Robert De Niro. But the movie, with its factoid-oriented script by Eric Roth (The Insider, Forrest Gump), is also adamant in its insistence that a good CIA type doesn’t trust anybody. So now I’m second-guessing: Did the filmmakers really intend The Good Shepherd to be so methodical, so glum, and so unemotional?
If they did, was the casting of live wire Angelina Jolie as Wilson’s frustrated wife (lassoed in ladylike dresses and pearls) a ruse, dangling a headline-grabbing star famous for her sexuality in a determinedly unsexy production? And one more conundrum: Does the movie actually succeed because of its failure to make the founding of the CIA exciting or even entirely intelligible?
Thus does paranoia play a part in fathoming this well-bred, slippery production. Wilson, we learn in one of the movie’s many portentous flashbacks, was a WASPy boy of good breeding whose father committed suicide when Wilson was young; the young man was a member of the ultrasecret Skull and Bones society at Yale University, a club famous for its arcane rituals (and therefore a fertile breeding ground for future judges, spooks, and U.S. presidents, including former CIA chief and 41st president George H.W. Bush). A principled square so committed to patriotism that he turns in his admired poetry professor (Michael Gambon, just one of the many plummies in supporting roles) as a Nazi sympathizer, Wilson proves himself over the years to be a perfect spy indeed, doing the right thing even when there is no clear right thing to do, e.g., when the Cold War with the Soviet Union is at its perilously iciest. The toll such a stoppered-up existence takes on those closest to Wilson is severe (he misses an early chance at real love with a sweet, deaf young woman played by Tammy Blanchard; his relationship with his own sad adult son, played by Eddie Redmayne, is desperately strained). But still he puts on his pinched little hat and glasses and pledges allegiance.
Matt Damon has had a great year at the movies, first with The Departed, as a cop with secret loyalties, and now as a company man of the highest order. As he has aged from boyishness into full manhood, the actor has excelled at subverting the all-American openness he projects and creating characters more adept at thinking on their feet than they’re given credit for. Here, he’s the ultimate enigma machine, a man willing to erase himself for his country. Does that make him a hero? The Good Shepherd is too closemouthed to let on.