The Contenders

Release: Dec. 22

Distributor: Universal

Oscar Alums: Robert De Niro (supporting actor, “The Godfather Part II”; actor, “Raging Bull”), Matt Damon (screenplay, “Good Will Hunting”), Angelina Jolie (supporting actress, “Girl, Interrupted”), Joe Pesci (supporting actor, “Goodfellas”), William Hurt (actor, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), Eric Roth (screenplay, “Forrest Gump”), Robert Richardson (cinematography, “JFK,” “The Aviator”), James Horner (score, song, “Titanic”), Ann Roth (costume design, “The English Patient”), Gretchen Rau (set decoration, “Memoirs of a Geisha”), Robert Legato (visual effects, “Titanic”)

Long one of the most acclaimed unproduced screenplays in Hollywood — previously attached to helmers John Frankenheimer and Philip Kaufman — Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth’s epic tale of the CIA’s history has finally made it to the screen under the direction of Robert De Niro.

De Niro takes the helm for only the second time since his feature debut, 1993′s “A Bronx Tale.” That pic was a modest coming-of-age slice of nostalgia, but its tale of a boy torn between conflicting loyalties in his home neighborhood obviously has stayed with De Niro. There are similar themes in the larger-scale narrative of “Shepherd.”

Matt Damon plays idealistic go-getter Edward Wilson, recruited by the OSS in World War II and eventually into a career at the nascent government intelligence agency, where over the course of several decades the demands of his job — deception, secrets and eventually the paranoia that defined the Cold War — threaten his marriage. Angelina Jolie plays Wilson’s long-suffering wife, and De Niro also appears in a supporting role as Wilson’s recruiter.

Although the December release hasn’t screened yet, it has been one of the most talked-about prestige movies for a while, promising a potent mix of thriller elements, domestic drama and political narrative that could easily prove catnip for Oscar voters who like their grand entertainments underscored with topicality.

With the nation’s intelligence-gathering arm a consistently controversial subject since 9/11, the timely release of a thought-provoking film that looks back at how one of government’s most used and abused security apparatuses came into being could spark plenty of buzz. That said, the hype and any potential controversy has to pay off, because while last year’s trenchant “Munich” won accolades and plenty of opinion-page discussion, it barely squeaked into Oscar contention.

Strong films helmed by top-drawer actors, however, usually have a solid shot with the Academy, as evidenced by the directing Oscars awarded to Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood.

All eyes might also be on Damon, who has in recent years become the thinking man’s movie star, familiar to espionage-loving audiences from the “Bourne” films and an actor nominee for “Good Will Hunting.” The challenge here is whether a role that by definition isn’t showy will capture voters distracted by more grandstanding perfs elsewhere.

Certainly the rest of the cast ups the Oscar pedigree, from previous winners Jolie, De Niro, William Hurt and Joe Pesci to character actor god Alec Baldwin.

Tech credits promise much, too, with cinematographer Robert Richardson and costumer Ann Roth among a potent mix of Oscar winners.

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