Directed by: Robert De Niro
Premise: The story of Edward Bell (Matt Damon) and the origin of the Central Intelligence Agency from World War II through the Bay of Pigs operation.
What Works: The film’s structure is compelling and it makes an interesting history of the intelligence community, particularly in the early years. It successfully cuts between the origins of the CIA and the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs disaster in ways that allow the two parts to comment on one another. The story has some interesting but subtle commentary on the familial transference of power in the parallels between the lives of Bell and his son (Eddie Redmayne), who also joins the intelligence field.
What Doesn’t: The Good Shepherd is troubled by a desire to cover more scope than can possibly be addressed in one film. Many A-list actors, including Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro, are given supporting roles that do not go anywhere and make the film a parade of cameos rather than a collection of characters interacting with each other. The Good Shepherd is primarily a biopic of Bell and how life in the field of counter intelligence grates on his personal life. While that is conveyed, there is little sense of what is lost or at stake of being lost. Bell’s marriage is depicted as miserable from the beginning and the further strain that his job puts on it just makes the relationship with his wife (Angelina Jolie) worse with no rise and fall of emotion. In Bell’s relationships with his son the problem is reversed and the son loves his absentee father to a fault with no challenge. The picture spends a great deal of its present-tense story attempting to discover the source and identity of a mysterious piece of film delivered to Bell after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Although it links to other story elements, when the mystery is finally revealed it is very much a let down and does not allow for much of an ending. The conclusion of the family story has very little to do with the spy story, except by contrivance.
Bottom Line: The Good Shepherd goes too far and tries too hard and in the end it comes up short in both of its narrative goals. The picture could have been great, but it has too little of anything and ends up with a lot of interesting fragments that do not add up to a cohesive whole.
Episode: #125 (January 7, 2007)