The Good Shepherd is a spy movie without the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from our favorite undercover operatives. There are no elaborate chase scenes a la James Bond, no cool gadgets like Ethan Hunt’s presto-chango masks in the Mission Impossible movies, not even the great scenery of the Bourne Supremacy. In fact the only thing The Good German shares with any of those movies is star Matt Damon, who has traded his Bourne identity for that of Edward Wilson, one of the (fictional) founders of the CIA.
The Good Shepherd is a movie about secrets and duplicitous men who live in a shady underworld where nothing is as it seems. Director Robert De Niro, in his first stint behind the camera in over a decade, has delivered a long, thoughtful movie about the paper pushers who fought the cold war from behind desks.
Damon is a stone-faced bureaucrat who is involved at the very highest levels of espionage. De Niro dispenses with most of the spy movie conventions to tell a complex story of this man’s career and private life. From a life groomed for clandestine politics first as a member of the Scull and Bones Club at Yale to counter-intelligence in WW2 to the Bay of Pigs to the sexual politics of feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage while feeling guilty about carrying on affairs, The Good Shepherd covers it all.
It’s an ambitious story, but the movie over-reaches in its attempts to present a well-rounded portrait of this man’s life. The time frame leap frogs constantly and it isn’t always clear whether we’re in the past or present, but I found the espionage story interesting enough to keep me engaged in the confusing story.