Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 20, 2006
The Good Shepherd\r\nStarring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. Directed by Robert De Niro. Written by Eric Roth. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Company Man

The Good Shepherd doesnít go astray, but doesnít lead anywhere exciting.


If you want a big-name actor to play a colorless guy with a hole in his soul, Matt Damon is now officially your man. The Good Shepherd gives him the chance to play yet another unsympathetic part, and just as he did in The Departed and The Talented Mr. Ripley, he lends magnetism to his characterís moral vacancy. Even when he plays the hero of the piece, as in Rounders and the Bourne movies, he often appears to be missing some essential human quality ó how else could he be so cool under pressure? If not for his goofy comic turns in Dogma and Stuck on You, we might suspect that Damon himself was the one lacking a soul rather than his characters.

Here he plays Edward Wilson, a fictitious Yalie whoís recruited into a government spy agency while still an undergraduate in 1939. He promptly joins a Nazi-sympathizing student organization so he can inform on them, handing over a bunch of his colleagues and a beloved English professor to the FBI. After World War II is over, that spy agency becomes the CIA, and Wilson devotes his life to it with an intensity that burns up everything that matters to him, including his wife (Angelina Jolie).

Thatís how it works in theory, though thereís hardly any intensity in this historical spy yarn that nakedly aspires to be a hollow manís tragedy but is way too predictable to pull that off. Directed by Robert De Niro, the film doesnít tell us anything about espionage that we didnít already know from reading any number of spy novels. (You canít trust anyone, you lose your soul, youíre a party to cold-blooded murder, etc.) It also purports to tell the story of the CIAís early history up to the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the history is hard to distinguish from Wilsonís tepid family drama and the movieís additional complement of fictional characters. Said characters arenít interesting, either, and their blandness leaves in the lurch a large and handsomely appointed cast (Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, John Turturro, and De Niro himself). Jolie shouldnít be playing suffering wife roles, to put it mildly, and while De Niroís Goodfellas co-star Joe Pesci shows up as a Mafia boss who helps the CIA dicker in Castroís Cuba, his cameo offers only a mild kick.

De Niroís one previous directorial credit was 1993ís A Bronx Tale, and his contribution here is the best thing about the film. While he isnít the most distinctive director, he gives cohesion to this sprawling narrative without letting the drama go slack. What might have been a deadly bore instead goes down pretty smoothly. Still, the film doesnít leave any lasting impact, much less the operatic grandeur that De Niro is aiming for. The Good Shepherd isnít a bad movie, but itís 167 minutes of tasteful mediocrity. That summation isnít likely to have you camping out by the ticket window.

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