The Good Shepherd uses the classic form of the espionage thriller to depict the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of one character, Edward Wilson, himself a composite of several real figures in the early days of the American intelligence community. Despite its length, deliberate pacing and a central character that is not particularly sympathetic, this film is a compelling account of a crucial, little known part of American history.
Of course, the CIA being the CIA, there are a lot of holes for director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth to fill with speculation, but they manage skillfully blend their story with twentieth century history. Told in two parallel narratives, The Good Shepherd begins with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. It’s determined that there was a leak or a mole that alerted the Cubans, throwing suspicion on the few who knew about the plans, including Edward Wilson (Matt Damon).
The film flashes back to 1939, as Wilson is about to be inducted into Skull and Bones, a secret society of prominent Yale students. He falls in love with a deaf girl but impregnates and marries “Clover” Russell (Angelina Jolie), the sister of fellow “Bonesman” and daughter of a Senator. Before the wedding, he is asked by the FBI to inform on a professor (Michael Gambon) suspected of Nazi sympathies. This leads to his being recruited to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) by General Bill Sullivan (De Niro), a character loosely based on William Donovan, the actual founder of the agency, which was the precursor of the CIA.
He’s shipped overseas to England a week after his wedding to Clover, to work with the British against the Germans, only to discover that, Dr. Fredricks, the professor he informed against at Yale, was actually a British agent infiltrating Nazi groups in the U.S. After the war, Wilson is involved with the expatriation of German scientists, including those suspected of war crimes, to the United States. His activities keep him away from home for the birth of his son, however, and make him a virtual stranger to his family when he returns. His wife begins to realize and accept that her husband married her out of obligation rather than love.
Obligation and duty seem to describe the parameters of Edward Wilson’s universe, as he does everything out of a rather rigid perception of his duty as an American. His is a peculiarly joyless brand of patriotism. At no point does he seem to derive any sort of pleasure out of his chosen profession but he never once considers any other course in life.
Matt Damon gives a surprisingly strong performance as one of blandest company men imaginable. His entire emotional life is internalized but Damon is able to skillfully suggest this without any recourse to dramatic fireworks. In a supporting role Angelina Jolie has the strongest emotional arc for her character, as she tries to protect her son, who tries to follow in his father’s footsteps as a desperate way of getting to know the man who was never home.
There are several excellent supporting performances by notable actors like William Hurt and Alec Baldwin, but the bulk of this film is on Damon’s shoulders, and it’s a major accomplishment that he is able to bring it off with a character that is the opposite of likeable.