The Good Shepherd: 3 Stars (out of 5)
The trailer for the film focuses on the early days of the CIA, the film however spends less than half of its 250 minute running time on the CIA and their operations. Instead the film is a character study of a government operative who would eventually become part of the new agency. When the film deals with the agency and its members and operations it’s very effective, however the examination of Edward Wilson and his family life doesn’t have the same spark (or any spark at all).
Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a Yale student, is recruited by the US Government and the secret Skull and Bones society. I have to stop for a second to discuss the scenes of the Skull and Bones initiation which, put kindly, are ridiculous. They actually make The Skulls look Shakespearean by comparison, and make it hard to take later characters and situations in the film seriously. Okay, back to the review…
Wilson is an honest, upstanding young man who fits the profile for espionage work. He is approached by an agent of the FBI (Alec Baldwin) who will become a friend and mentor of sorts over the years. Eventually a new agency is created and Wilson is chosen to head the foreign affairs office which will bring him fame and sorrow.
The film skips between the present as Wilson tries to uncover the truth behind a roll of film and the past as Wilson trains and works as a CIA operative. Both these threads work, however the film also examines Wilson’s college life, his romances, his marriage and personal life – none of which compares to the other threads of the film, and only serves to balloon the over-long running time.
The main problem with the film is it wants to be a character study but doesn’t want to tell you who Edward Wilson really was. So we get an in-depth look at his life and history, but don’t really learn much about him as a person. Since the film is centered around him, and not the events or the creation of the CIA, this flaw makes the film feel hollow. It’s a character study of a man who only existed through his work, and since the film spends half the time examining aspects of his life he didn’t care about, why should we?
Although the film strays too much from it’s strengths, there are plenty of reasons to give it a look. The operations run by Wilson are interesting as is the mystery which is slowly put together over the course of the film. Also worth noticing are a large collection of good performances including Damon, Baldwin, Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro (who allow directs). Given this level of talent, and the subject matter of the creation of the CIA, I expected more than just this slightly above average film.