“The Good Shepherd,” an espionage saga directed by Robert De Niro, takes us through a quarter-century of intelligence history, transpiring in a modern-times warp teeming with Nazi sympathizers, Soviet adversaries, Cuban perils, LSD experiments and other ingredients of the spy pie. It’s a terrifically ambitious movie whose wealth of detail should appeal to children of the Cold War. But for all its intrigue, it is too staid and stuffed to emotionally satisfy.
The drama stretches from 1939 to 1961, during which time the Central Intelligence Agency (and its Office of Strategic Services precursor) grew from a small cadre of wartime idealists to a ruthless grand-scale association perverted by anti-Soviet paranoia.
Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a buttoned-up CIA man as nondescript as his name. He advances from an upright Skull and Bones member (the secret Yale society is OSS recruiting ground) to a young OSS agent to a CIA high-ranker whose work involves assassinations, spy-vs.-spy machinations and identifying a mole who may have sabotaged the Bay of Pigs invasion, among other treachery. His personal life includes a wife (Angelina Jolie) who hardly knows him, a son (Eddie Redmayne) who fears him and a former girlfriend (Tammy Blanchard) who represents his lost ideals.
De Niro, who previously directed “A Bronx Tale,” and screenwriter Eric Roth, whose credits include “Munich,” impressively capture the tenor of the Cold War era, when genuine threat coexisted with groundless suspicion of absurd proportion. They paint a potent portrait of the CIA as a WASP brotherhood whose members would betray one another at the drop of one of their cookie-cutter hats if faced with their own dispensability.
Unfortunately, however, Roth’s cluttered screenplay contains too many components for anything to hit hard, and De Niro doesn’t present these developments with enough heat or thrust. He appears to be aiming for a “Godfather”-like American epic and personal tragedy. But he sometimes delivers just topic-rich slog.
The primary characters prove particularly problematic. Damon has presence, but Edward, a fact-based composite who personifies the secretive, soulless CIA, remains frustratingly opaque. Jolie can’t take her shallowly written role — first a seductress, then a suffering wife — anywhere interesting.
The supporting cast, fortunately, supplies juice. The character-actor roster includes William Hurt, John Turturro and Alec Baldwin as intelligence cohorts, Joe Pesci as a mobster, and Michael Gambon as a tainted academic. De Niro nearly steals his own show as Edward’s recruiting general.
The Good Shepherd **1/2 Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Tammy Blanchard, Eddie Redmayne
Written by Eric Roth
Directed by Robert De Niro
Running time 2 hours, 47 minutes