The birth of the CIA and the life journey of one of its founding operatives is a fascinating subject, one that is done only lukewarm justice in “The Good Shepherd.” Robert De Niro’s second film as a director adopts a methodical approach and deliberate pace in attempting to grasp an almost forbiddingly intricate subject, with a result that is not boring, exactly, but undeniably tedious. Cast and material’s intrinsic interest will provide a sufficient media profile for a decent B.O. launch, but lack of excitement and suspense will translate into a quick commercial fade.
Eric Roth’s heavily researched original script fictionalizes known events big and small as it hops, skips and jumps through some 40 years of an ever-changing geopolitical landscape. Pivoting on the CIA’s role in the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, ambitious yarn casts its eye on such other historical signposts as the Skull & Bones society, the formation of the OSS on the eve of World War II and the long chess game of the Cold War, all the while developing an arching theme involving the legacies of fathers and sons.
Given the glacial emotional temperature and withholding nature of the characters, it would not be surprising to learn that De Niro’s artistic template here was the Al Pacino portion of “The Godfather: Part II,” which itself serves as a reminder that executive producer Francis Ford Coppola once planned to direct this project himself.
But the long and short of the problem is that the director never finds a proper rhythm to allow the viewer to settle comfortably into what turns out to be a very long voyage. Like many films of the moment, this one keeps jumping around in time, not confusingly in the least, but in a way that has no natural flow to it. Tie that to a central character who defiantly offers no glimpse into his inner life and you have a picture that offers scant returns for the investment of time it requests of the viewer.
Beginning with a sketchy account of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the narrative bounces back to 1939, when blueblooded Yale student Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is initiated into the secret future leaders training ground, Skull & Bones — which in turn triggers another flashback to 20 years earlier, when little Edward discovered the body of his father, who committed suicide.
A square, upright fellow with a gift for poetry, Edward attracts the attention of an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin), to whom Edward displays his advanced sense of loyalty by exposing the evident Nazi connections of his doting English professor (Michael Gambon). In this patriotic act of personal betrayal, a long and fruitful career begins.
A man of few words and no humor, Edward possesses a purposefulness that impresses the high society of his classmates. His stony seriousness poses only a momentary challenge to a spirited and flirtatious senator’s daughter, Clover (Angelina Jolie), who gets herself knocked up just as Edward has taken an interest in an appealing deaf girl, Laura (Tammy Blanchard). Edward dutifully marries Clover and promptly disappears for six years to blitz-plagued London at the behest of “Wild Bill” Sullivan (De Niro in a wryly sage turn), who’s been put in charge of FDR’s foreign intelligence unit, the nascent Office of Strategic Services.
When Edward finally returns, he meets his son but has virtually nothing to say to the wife he scarcely knows. Things remain frosty between them, a consequence of Edward’s professional policy of disclosing nothing and trusting no one. But it’s one of the film’s key failings that this relationship is never defined at least to the point of explaining why Clover stays with Edward when he ignores her so totally, a situation aggravated by the casting of Jolie, who one knows would never sit around waiting for a man forever.
Nevertheless, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne, good) comes to play a critical role in his father’s life, as shadowy exchanges between East and West come to dominate. Particularly central is the CIA’s wary acceptance of a Soviet defector, Valentin (John Sessions), only to be confounded by the later arrival of another Russian (Mark Ivanir) claiming to be the real Valentin, all against the backdrop of Edward’s efforts to learn all he can about his own KGB counterpart, “Ulysses” (Oleg Stefan).
Inherent tragedy of the story lies in the seeming inevitability of betrayal on both personal and professional fronts when matters are pushed to their furthest limits. Here, too, are found echoes of the “Godfather” films, but the thematic similarities merely point up “The Good Shepherd’s” shortcomings where directorial command is concerned. Crucially missing is slowly building momentum, a firm hand on pace, a way to convey gradual moral decay and a talent for magisterial storytelling, gifts that are impossible to fake in the long run.
Seemingly based in great measure on the ever-intriguing James Angleton, Damon’s Edward remains an opaque, impenetrable figure throughout, and neither actor nor script provides the subtext to reveal any layers of personality. Many of the supporting players provide welcome personal flavors, but thesping overall is restrained rather than flashy or deeply felt.
Considerable care has gone into period details, as exemplified by the rich contributions of production designer Jeannine Oppewall, costume designer Ann Roth and cinematographer Robert Richardson, which combine for a darkly burnished look. Score by Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler provides imaginative, atypical backdropping.