[FILM] Review: The Good German" - Matt Damon: A Spy
- 'The Good Shepherd'
A spy whose soul goes undercover. RECOMMENDED
By Kenneth Turan, Times Staff Writer
Given that its subject matter is spying, counterespionage and the
Central Intelligence Agency, it's not an accident that the first
words we hear in "The Good Shepherd" turn out to be a complete lie.
"You are safe here with me," a woman says to a man, but it's not
true. In fact, this complex, quietly dramatic film creates a world
where that sentence is never true, a world of constant, mind-altering
betrayal and mistrust, a world that makes the biblical words carved
on the CIA building in Langley, Va. "And ye shall know the truth
and the truth shall make you free" seem ironic at best.
It's taken a dozen years for Eric Roth's smart, thoughtful,
psychologically complicated script to reach the screen under Robert
De Niro's careful and methodical direction, and it is easy to see why.
When Hollywood thinks spies, it thinks "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," it doesn't
want to deal with an intricate, deliberately paced 2-hour and 37-
minute work that not only quietly presents this quicksand world but
also makes us feel what it would be like to live in it.
At the heart of this drama is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), whose life
in and out of the agency we follow for more than 35 years. He is the
spymaster's spymaster, in the espionage business from the earliest
World War II days of the Office of Strategic Services, the
organization that gave birth to the CIA.
Wilson, however, will remind no one of James Bond. He is a gray
bureaucrat, a meticulous perfectionist, seemingly humorless and
emotionless, who speaks only when he feels he has something
worthwhile to say.
One of the earliest glimpses we have of Wilson, however playing
Little Buttercup in drag in a Yale performance of "HMS Pinafore"
gives the hint of the potential development of another kind of man.
What "The Good Shepherd" is intent on showing us is how the one man
became the other, how Edward Wilson's belief in duty above all else
became his salvation and his betrayal, how a version of doing the
right thing took over his life. It's about how a soulless occupation
can destroy souls, about the price you pay for being the way you are.
Damon, in his second major role of the year (after "The Departed")
once again demonstrates his ability to convey emotional reserves, to
animate a character from the inside out and create a man we can sense
has more of an interior life than he is willing to let on.
An argument could be made, in fact, that De Niro himself, famously
undemonstrative in interview situations, was in part able to direct
this role and this picture so well because he perhaps saw something
of himself in its protagonist.
Because of the great regard his fellow performers have for him, De
Niro was able to attract an impressive cast of costars. These
include besides Michael Gambon as a Yale professor, Angelina Jolie
as Wilson's wife and Tim Hutton in flashback as his father a
notable group of fellow intelligence operatives: Alec Baldwin, Billy
Crudup, William Hurt, Lee Pace and John Turturro. Not as well known
but equally strong are Tammy Blanchard as an early romantic
attachment and Eddie Redmayne as Wilson's adult son.
The film's frame is the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed invasion
of Cuba that will likely cause some heads to roll. As Wilson tries to
find out what went wrong and to protect himself from internal attacks
that could come from anywhere, a series of flashbacks shows us how he
went from an idealistic Yale man to someone fanatically dedicated to
his World War II work to the troubled man locked in a Cold War dance
of death with his Soviet opposite number.
There's way more plot in "The Good Shepherd" than can be easily
summarized, and that is a good thing. And even though some things are
expected, like coded dialogue of the "I'm here to see the tailor
about a fitting" variety, much of what's here is not.
An extended series of sequences, for instance, showing in detail how
the agency goes about analyzing a photograph and a tape recording to
see where they're from, are truly fascinating.
Though biographer Tom Mangold, author of "Cold Warrior: James Jesus
Angleton: The CIA's Master Spyhunter," is thanked in credits, it is
clear from interviews that "The Good Shepherd" is most concerned
about being true to the spirit and broader truths of the spy game
than any specific details. When Gambon's Dr. Fredericks, a professor
of poetry, tells young Wilson "you have to look behind the words to
understand the meaning," he is telling us all we need to know.
"The Good Shepherd." MPAA rating: R for some violence, sexuality and
language. Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes. In general release.