The Good Shepherd (De Niro, 2006)

The epic scope and breadth of De Niro’s film about the birth of the C.I.A. is both intriguing and problematic, especially in the muddy middle act, but on the whole The Good Shepherd achieves a superb brutal coldness, mainly from the brilliant core performance by Matt Damon. With the sleek and dark colors of Cold War espionage iconography, De Niro is in a whole different world than his directorial debut A Bronx Tale, where vibrant hues dominated the nostalgic view of gangster life. But under closer scrutiny, each has similar rules of manipulation. Both the Mob and the C.I.A. use misinformation to distort any semblance of reality in order to control image, basically becoming propaganda machines to maintain power. It’s an interesting linage of material for De Niro as a filmmaker because it dares to make the good guys seem extra bad when placed in corners of influence. There’s also an attention to technique in The Good Shepherd. With a series of wide crane shots that start out black and white then turn to color, De Niro obtains a great visual motif to connect long lapses in time, establishing movement forward in history but still calling attention to the contradictions in doing so. The Good Shepherd has a sundry of stars in small roles, the best being Alec Baldwin as a F.B.I. man, Billy Crudup as Damon’s British equal, and De Niro himself as a dying American General. While most of the parts pale in comparison to Damon’s life long C.I.A. man Edward Wilson, each plays a key role in molding the complex impressions of this squirmy anti-hero. Wilson is so introverted with his passion for freedom and democracy, we rarely see the violence brewing inside. But when Wilson is forced to make crucial decisions between family and country, his choices challenge and confound the founding ideologies The United States was supposed to hold dear. These moments make up the very best of The Good Shepherd, and it’s forgivable one must wade through the hours of buildup for such telling and haunting moments of conviction.


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