Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for the third installment, let’s begin with 2006’s The Good Shepherd!
Given that the central pieces of its subject matter are that of spying, counterespionage and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it’s not an accident that the first words spoken in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, a film that shockingly has faded from the movie conscience ever since its release in December of 2006, turn out to be a complete lie. “You are safe here with me,” a woman says to a man, but it’s not true. In fact, this complex, quietly dramatic film creates a world where that sentence is never true, a world of constant, mind-altering betrayal and mistrust, a world that makes the biblical words carved on the CIA building in Langley, Virginia — “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” — seem ironic at best.
But those words are also, in some ways, a polar opposite thesis to what The Good Shepherd displays. At the time of its release back in 2006 it was a long gestating project, where Eric Roth originally wrote it for Francis Ford Coppola back in 1994. And it was from there where the film was tossed around to directors ranging from Philip Kaufman to John Frankenheimer, with Robert De Niro nearly the entire time pushing and recommending the project to many. But it wasn’t before long that De Niro decided to helm the project himself, making it his second directorial effort after 1993’s A Bronx Tale. He brought the project to Universal Pictures with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star, but it didn’t take long before Leo had to drop out because of his commitment to making The Departed. But it was DiCaprio’s Departed co-star, Matt Damon, that swooped in to the recuse and signed on (with also the help of Steven Soderbergh, though, whom Damon was originally supposed to shoot The Informant! with at the same time, but Soderbergh delayed the shoot just so Damon and De Niro could shoot their project).
So with a budget of around $100 million, Eric Roth’s smart, thoughtful, psychologically complicated script came together with De Niro’s careful and methodical direction and arrived in theaters for a primetime, awards-pushing Christmas release and landed with a mixed thud. Earning just about a $100 million at the box office and coming with a mixed-negative critical response. (If you’re a fan of the critical aggregators, the film holds a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 61 on Metacritic.) Most of the negative responses called the film tedious and a little too low-key, and maybe that’s because at the time the studio-backed spy movies were films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith or the Bourne films, both of which bring flashy violence or exciting car chases, but neither of which are intricate, deliberately paced two-hour-and-forty-eight-minute films that quietly make you sink into a quicksand world of shaky moralities.
“I just like it when things happen for a reason. So I want to downplay the violence, depict it in a muted way. In those days, it was a gentleman’s game,” De Niro said of his approach to The Good Shepherd and it clearly shows. At the heart of this drama is Edward Wilson (Damon), whose life in and out of the agency we follow for more than thirty-five years. He is the spymaster’s spymaster, in the espionage business from the earliest WWII days of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the organization that gave birth to the CIA. Wilson, however, is far from James Bond. He is a gray bureaucrat, a meticulous perfectionist, seemingly humorless and emotionless, who speaks only when he feels he has something worthwhile to say. And that same crosses over to his family life, where little connection is felt to his wife Margaret (Angelina Jolie) or to his son Edward Jr. (played by Tommy Nelson younger and Eddie Redmayne older).
One of the earliest glimpses we get of Wilson, however, he’s seen in his college years playing Little Buttercup in drag in a Yale performance of “HMS Pinafore.” It’s a clear hint of the potential development to a completely different kind of man. But what The Good Shepherd is intent on showing us is how the one man became the other, how Edward Wilson’s belief in duty above all else became his salvation and his complete betrayal, how a version of doing the right thing took a crooked turn and took over his life. It’s about the dangers of certain brotherhoods and how a soulless occupation can destroy souls, about the price you pay for being the way you are.
In some ways, it’s interesting to compare both of Damon’s 2006 roles (the other being the aforementioned The Departed). In both he demonstrates a beautiful knack for conveying emotional reserves, to animate a character from the inside out and create a man we can sense has more of an interior life than he is willing to let on. It’s a performance that feels in the vein of some great past De Niro performances, so it’s not too shocking that he could direct such a fine performance of that stature. And it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that De Niro pulled such an impressive supporting cast. Which include — Michael Gambon as a shady Yale professor, the aforementioned Jolie as Wilson’s wife, and Tim Hutton in flashback as Wilson’s father. There’s as well a notable group of fellow intelligence operatives: Alec Baldwin, De Niro himself, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, William Hurt, Lee Pace and John Turturro, who all turn in good work. Not as well known but equally strong work as well comes from Tammy Blanchard as an early romantic attachment and Eddie Redmayne as Wilson’s adult son.
On the more craft and technical side of things, The Good Shepherd delivers as well; from Jeannine Oppewall’s production design to cinematographer Robert Richardson’s utterly incredible work; capturing a world of crisp and vivid shadows that’s lightly touched with moments of luminance. And they both engross you into the film’s world and time which largely focuses on the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed invasion of Cuba. We see as Wilson tries to find out what went wrong and to protect himself from internal attacks that could come from anywhere, a series of flashbacks shows us how he went from an idealistic Yale man to someone fanatically dedicated to his WWII work to the troubled man locked in a Cold War dance of death with his Soviet opposite number. There’s way more plot in The Good Shepherd that can’t be easily summarized, and that’s a good thing. And even though some things arrive expectedly, much of what’s in The Good Shepherd is not. While not directly a true story — Edward Wilson is a composite character of many real people — The Good Shepherd is a film most concerned abut being true to the spirit and broader truths of the spy game than the raw specific details. It’s at one point where Michael Gambon’s character, a professor of poetry, tells a young Edward Wilson “you have to look behind the words to understand the meaning,” and that’s seemingly what many should do with The Good Shepherd: a film in much need of re-evaluation.