What do you get when you combine all the elements of an epic spy drama, a great cast, high production values, and nicely composed cinematography? I’ve watched enough examples of this ilk that I can tell you the answer is usually a pretty good film, but in the case of The Good Shepherd (2006), the answer is surprisingly meh. This is simply one of those attractive, professionally made films that doesn’t add up to much.
The titular protagonist is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a straight-and-narrow patriot serving his country as an officer in the Central Intelligence Agency. It opens in 1961, as Wilson — a key participant in the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — receives blackmail material hinting at a potential leak that may have blown the operation. While Wilson investigates the material in this track, the narrative flashes back to the late 1930s, when Wilson was a privileged college student whose connections route him through an elite secret society and ultimately into the newly formed CIA. Wilson’s storied international career is only briefly disrupted by a shotgun marriage to Margaret “Clover” Russell (Angelina Jolie), but as the narrative crawls through the decades of Wilson’s career, the connection to the blackmail material gradually undermines Wilson’s surface reputation as a dedicated company man, and reveals how the nasty business of spydom taints everyone it touches.
Directed and produced by Robert De Niro, The Good Shepherd seems to have everything in the world going for it. But it’s missing something crucial: character. Not that it’s the first spy film to sacrifice people for plot, but The Good Shepherd possesses a profound dearth of interesting people, even by the standards of a genre that usually over-relies on cliches and archetypes. Damon is curiously flat as Wilson, whose inscrutable nature makes him totally inaccessible, and because it’s difficult to to care much about him, the personal stakes are very difficult to find. Jolie is wasted in a truly thankless role, while the impressive supporting group — De Niro, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, John Turturro, even an incongruous and probably extraneous Joe Pesci — aren’t given anything very noteworthy to chew on. The only real standouts are Tammy Blanchard (as Wilson’s deaf girlfriend Laura) and Lee Pace (as a slick secret-society colleague named Rick), but only by bringing performing spirit to otherwise unremarkable characters.
This profound lack of memorable people — and, by extension, emotional investment — makes the rest of The Good Shepherd difficult to appreciate, even though the quality of the production is generally high. De Niro’s shot composition is attractive, and the historical atmosphere is nicely realized. There’s even some decent, nifty spy tradecraft here and there. But it’s a distancing affair that doesn’t make much of point, and — much like Wilson at the end — kind of wanders away without having made a very deep impression.