Saturday 8 May 2021

Movie Review: The Good Shepherd (2006)

A superlative spy drama, The Good Shepherd explores an agent's psyche during the formative years of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1961, CIA officer Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is involved in planning the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. When the operation goes wrong, CIA Director Philip Allen (William Hurt) is under pressure to clean house. Edward receives a grainy photo and audio tape potentially revealing a mole, and a warning from the FBI's Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin).

Flashbacks starting in 1939 trace Edward's involvement in the agency's origins. While at Yale he joins the secretive Skull and Bones society, revealing a childhood trauma in the process. Murach then recruits him to expose the Nazi-friendly activities of Professor Fredericks (Michael Gambon). Edward starts a friendship with student Laura (Tammy Blanchard), who is deaf, but one night of passion with senator's daughter Margaret “Clover” Russell  (Angelina Jolie) results in a pregnancy and a rushed marriage.

With the US about to enter the Second World War, General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro) recruits Edward, Philip Allen and Richard Hayes (Lee Pace) into the new Office of Strategic Services. Assisted by Ray Brocco (John Turturro), Edward spends the war in Europe. He meets his Soviet nemesis Ulysses (Oleg Stefan) as the Cold War ushers in a new spy era. Due to his continuous absence from home Edward's relationship with Clover unravels, and he remains a distant father as his son Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) enters adulthood.

Inspired by real events and actual people while focusing on careful exposition, deliberate dialogue, and the essential trust no one thought process, The Good Shepherd is 167 minutes of epic film making. Eric Roth's script resists any temptations to slip into thriller or action territory, stubbornly adhering to the principle of brains over brawn. And Robert De Niro settles comfortably into the directors chair with an assured, character-focused vision for quality storytelling.

The narrative is rich with mystery, nervous tension, events hinting at danger to come, and difficult moral choices. Edward serves his country at the expense of a family he never consciously asked for, and his ability to thrive within the spy game hollows him out emotionally. Only Laura cheers up his spirit, and once they are separated she becomes a symbol of what may have been. His reality is a loveless marriage to Clover and a son growing up with an absentee father, and in the entangled world of espionage, family will inevitably get compromised.

Trust no one is the advice Edward must internalize, but The Good Shepherd does trust its audience to enjoy a complex puzzle. The running time is never onerous as Roth delves deep into various compelling spycraft realities. Intermingled chapters include defectors who may or may not be enemy plants, brutal interrogations, termination of friendly agents due to loose lips, honey traps, allied intelligence agencies leaning on each other for dirty work, and double agents at the highest echelons upstaged by even more audacious infiltrations.

And tying the puzzle together is the surreptitiously captured photo and audio tape, Edward working with CIA analysts over several sessions to dissect every faint sound and indistinct shadow. Determining where the photo was taken and who is in it may unlock an agent compromising the CIA's most closely guarded secrets, and for Edward the revelations may be career defining.

Matt Damon dissolves into Edward as an inconspicuous man thriving in the shadows and mastering the art of holding a conversation without speaking. He is supported by a strong cast, with Oleg Stefan a standout as Ulysses, Edward's Soviet rival and worthy spy master.

With intricate construction and superb execution, The Good Shepherd shines an irresistible thin beam of light through a world of secrets, darkness and mirrors.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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