A good espionage thriller is hard to come by these days. Most of the time the pacing is slow and there isn’t much intrigue that goes along with the story. Movies that focus on spying and our secret agencies that protect the public, but also keep them in the dark, never really show the cloak and dagger side of espionage. More than likely to sate the need of the audience, we see more dagger rather than cloak in espionage films. To my delight, Robert De Niro decided to tell a story about the beginnings of our secret, counter-intelligence agency, the CIA.
The Good Shepherd tell the “untold” story of how the CIA began. I put quotations around “untold” since there is no real official start to their beginning, which is shrouded in secrecy, much like the agency. The movie follow the story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who is based loosely on two members of the CIA. We see the early upbringing of Wilson, briefly as a child and then to his college years. The early childhood scene sets up the closing of the movie, where we see Edwards dad going through a difficult situation in his life and eventually takes his life. We move on to Edwards years at Yale, where he is then tapped to join the Skull and Bones society. He then is recruited by a FBI agent played by Alec Baldwin, to spy on his poetry professor because of possible to ties to the Nazi party.
After completing the task given by the FBI and being a member of the Skull and Bones society, Edward is approached to help in World War II by assisting with the OSS in London. This is where Edward receives training in the art of counter-espionage. Edward quickly learns about the underhanded dealings of information and informants, what role it plays in shifting the balance and eventually how to trust no one.
After the war ends, Edward is once again approached to utilize his skills in counter-espionage to help with a new government organization, CIA. The story now focuses on the brewing Cold War and Edwards family life, both of which are bad at the current time. Before the war, Edward married (Angelina Jolie plays the wife) and had a child whom he left to serve his country. After coming back, Edward and his wife are distant with one another, but she is still kept in the dark as to what he really does. With the Cold War tensions at their height, Edward must learn to deal with the fact his son is also joining the CIA and must make a difficult decision. A decision that challenges his loyalty to his wife and son, but also his loyalty to the CIA.
The movie itself is not an action movie. This is a slow, cat and mouse movie that has incredible pacing since the subject matter is generally slow. De Niro does a great job in keeping the audience moving from scene to scene, but also keeping us engaged with the story. Damon does a wonderful job playing a secretive and distant character. There is never a real strong development or attachment you will have with him. Much like theme of the movie, he is kept in shadow as to his emotions and the way he presents himself. The Good Shepherd leans heavy on the secret nature of both the CIA and the people that comprise the movie. All throughout the movie, the idea of trust and secrets is riddled in every scene. Before Edwards must burn his first informant, he is told to get out while he still has a soul. Other agents express their disdain for having to always look behind them when they walk home. Friends are a luxury that they will never truly have. When your life is built around a secret, who can you ever be honest too?
De Niro assembled a stellar group of supporting actors and actresses to fill in important and small roles. Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Joe Pesci, John Turturro, and Michael Gambon all bring their incredible skills to a great ensemble piece. Every actor brings their little touch to their role and each play a pivotal role in Edwards life. You don’t see many of the actor’s often in the movie. This goes in line with the whole isolation and secrecy aspect of movie, where only Turturro and Jolie have prominent roles as the Edwards right hand man and Edwards wife.
The Good Shepherd may seem like a heavy movie, but the subject matter sheds a light on those that live in the shadows. You feel sorry for what the characters in the movie go through. You feel sorry that their lives are nothing but secrets and whispers. De Niro did an amazing job with the script and directing to bring us a very tightly paced movie about a subject that not a lot of people are aware of. We see a lot of movies that deal with spying and our secretive agencies, but those are more whiz bang action rather than story driven.
If you are in the mood for a good thriller with an engaging story and superb action, rent this on Netlfix or put it on your waiting list.