A blurb on the DVD case of The Good Shepherd gushes that it's "The Godfather of CIA movies." While this reviewer isn't prepared to go quite that far, it's a more apt description than one might think. The picture echoes the sweep and somber grandeur of Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece, spanning decades in its epic tale of secrets, lies and clandestine tape recordings. In Edward Wilson, the film's principal spy, this espionage flick boasts an antihero who might be able to match Michael Corleone for icy ambivalence. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that The Good Shepherd is co-produced by Coppola and directed by the estimable Robert DeNiro, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather, Part II.
Matt Damon gives a tour de force performance as Edward. In the 1930s, he is a bespectacled, buttoned-up Yale man with some serious weight on his shoulders. Edward's father (Timothy Hutton), a Navy admiral, committed suicide amid vague allegations of treason. The man's last words of advice to his young son prove portentous: "Don't ever lie. If you lie to your friends, no one will trust you and you'll have nothing." But the tight-lipped Edward does not share of himself easily, and so it is fitting that he joins the elite (and very white Anglo) secret society, Skull and Bones. Several years later, he is recruited by Uncle Sam to help organize a foreign intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, in anticipation of the United States' entry into World War II.
Edward is assigned to London, leaving behind his new bride, Margaret Ann "Clover" Russell (Angelina Jolie), a woman he is forced to marry after a one-night stand ends in pregnancy. Edward might not be the most open husband and father, but he is a natural-born provocateur, learning counterintelligence from a veteran British spy (Michael Gambon). Years pass, with the World War evolving into the Cold War. Edward soldiers on, relocating for a time in Berlin before eventually returning Stateside to a wife and son he barely knows.
DeNiro's previous foray into directing, A Bronx Tale, was a decent enough movie, but it did not hint at the complexities of The Good Shepherd, which uses Edward's experiences to chronicle American espionage in the 20th century. Employing a deliberate pace that recalls the Seventies-era works of Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula, DeNiro meticulously fashions a hermetically sealed world that roils with doublecrosses and divided loyalties.
Make no mistake: The Good Shepherd demands attention. Like Edward, viewers must sift through small details; a seemingly innocuous remark or action can have critical ramifications later on. Despite a lengthy running time of 167 minutes, there is remarkably little fat in the script by Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump).
DeNiro, no slouch in the acting department, gives his actors enough space to shine. The Good Shepherd features a superb cast that includes John Turturro, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup and Joe Pesci. DeNiro has a sly turn as an OSS founder, and Tammy Blanchard is heartbreaking in her all-too-brief appearances as Edward's college sweetheart.
Most impressive of all is Damon. His Edward Wilson is a tragic figure who sacrifices personal happiness for the demands of a job that precludes trust and intimacy. Damon conveys fierce intelligence, but it is edged with melancholy, too; you know that he realizes exactly the magnitude of what he has denied himself. That subtlety is no small feat in a movie that faces the age-old conundrum of how to tell the story about cold detachment without becoming coldly detached along the way.
The print transfer is excellent. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen beautifully showcases the work of ace cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator, the Kill Bill flicks), who casts The Good Shepherd in shadowed textures and muted colors. Blacks are inky and skin tones are realistic, and the disc is devoid of noticeable artifacts. A few scenes exhibit slight grain and noise, but they are a minor distraction.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is clear and free of drop-off or distortion. While the movie is essentially dialogue-driven, the DVD's sound mix still finds creative use for the rear speakers. A French 5.1 audio track is also available, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
It's hardly surprising that the famously taciturn DeNiro opted not to do a commentary track, but the DVD's dearth of supplemental material is still a disappointment. The only extras are seven deleted scenes (15:57). Interestingly, a subplot about Clover's brother was scrapped entirely from the theatrical release.
The Good Shepherd is a brooding, complicated and deliberately paced movie, but it is also an intensely rewarding one. In using the fictitious Edward Wilson as a canvas to illustrate the history of Cold War espionage, director Robert DeNiro and screenwriter Eric Roth fashion a tense, compelling work reminiscent of some of the great American films of the early Seventies. This reviewer's sole grievance is the DVD's lack of extras, but the movie's caliber alone is enough to make it highly recommended.