De Niro watches over a talented flock

For a guy whose film career launched more than 40 years ago, Robert De Niro is hardly showing any signs of creative fatigue. The quintessential method actor has six upcoming films in pre-production, one directed by Jodie Foster, another by Barry Levinson.

This month, the two-time Oscar-winner turns heads in a place many wouldn’t expect to find him: behind the camera, directing “The Good Shepherd,” which opens Friday.

Set against a backdrop of Cold War neuroses and political upheavals, the film attempts to illuminate the genesis of the CIA. Tent-poled by a stellar cast — Matt Damon in the lead role — “The Good Shepherd” comes at a time when post-9/11 reflection continues to fuel some filmmakers’ desire to shed light on the present state of world affairs by crawling right back into the past for answers.

It’s De Niro’s second turn as director. His freshman outing was 1993’s “A Bronx Tale.”

Here, in an emotionally charged opus, he revolves his story around Damon’s character, Edward Wilson. A staunch patriot, Wilson’s Yale education eventually sends him into the welcoming arms of the mysterious Skull and Bones society circa 1939 before being single-handedly recruited by Office of Strategic Services, an early precursor to the CIA.

Dubbed “the untold story of the CIA,” the film is a mixture of real events and takeoffs of real-life characters. It doesn’t hurt that it comes with a glowing blessing from Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S.Ambassador to the United Nations. While the film technically is a fictionalized version of history, Holbrooke has said it manages to be accurate in “almost every incident.”

De Niro can thank some of the best filmmakers in Hollywood for that.

Oscar-winner Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “Munich”) penned the piece; Francis Ford Coppola serves as one of the executive producers. Toss in an Oscar-winning cinematographer such as Robert Richardson (“The Aviator,” “JFK”), another Oscar recipient for costume design, Ann Roth (“The English Patient,” “The Hours”), and the hypnotic if not polished work of a production designer like Jeannine Oppewall (“Seabiscuit,” “L.A. Confidential”), and it’s hard to imagine how the film could tank.

The big challenge? Attention to detail.

De Niro wanted to make things look authentic and of the era. He eventually settled on using the Brooklyn Armory, built in 1901 for the United States Cavalry — now home to the U.S. Army and National Guard — for interior shots of the CIA. Other portions of the film were shot in New York, the Adirondack Mountains, Washington, D.C., London and, curiously enough, the Dominican Republic.

All this spills into the thrust of the entire project, which culls from the vital, passionate spirit on which the country was founded. De Niro’s vision was to accentuate Wilson’s sense of dedication to America at a time when it needed protection. He focused on what Wilson sacrificed personally in order to create a vital, secretive CIA tapestry, initially during World War II.

The film moves through other political upheavals before rolling to a close in the ’60s.

Beyond actually making the film look real, the acting had to be on the mark. For that, the director rounded up a posse of actors most Hollywood directors would mortgage a second estate for: Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Angelina Jolie (playing Damon’s wife), Joe Pesci, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton and John Turturro. De Niro also has a small role in the movie.

Method acting aside, De Niro’s passion for the film business, overall, is noteworthy. After sprouting the Tribeca Productions in the late ’80s and, later, The Tribeca Film Festival in 2002, it became clear that De Niro’s dedication to the craft went beyond just showing up in front of the camera. Still, whenever he does appear in front of the lens, memorable things happen.

He took home Oscars for his roles in “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) and “Raging Bull” (1980); his repertoire remains diverse. There are, at the very least, six different sides to De Niro’s playlist.

» You Talkin’ To Me De Niro: “Taxi Driver”

» Shady De Niro: “The Godfather Part II,” “The Untouchables,” “Good Fellas,” “Cape Fear,” “This Boy’s Life,” “Casino,” “Heat”

» Spiritual De Niro: “The Mission,” “Angel Heart”

» Comedic De Niro: “The King of Comedy,” “Midnight Run,” “Analyze This,” “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle,” “Meet the Parents”

» De Niro in Peril: “The Deer Hunter,” “Raging Bull,” “Ronin”

» Animated De Niro: “Arthur and the Invisibles,” “Shark Tale”

Add “Directing De Niro” to that list. Like Redford, Eastwood and Gibson before him, De Niro’s creative eye behind the scenes could be a refreshing addition to the blockbuster-heavy movie marketplace.

The Good Shepherd

Directed by Robert De Niro

Written by Eric Roth

Opening Friday

Rated R

Running time 2 hours, 47 minutes

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