Many people know that Robert De Niro has earned the reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation, but fewer realize that he has also directed two films, both worth watching. De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, tells the story of a father competing with a local gangster for his son’s loyalty and fits easily into De Niro’s career, which includes many nuanced depictions of criminals. De Niro’s sophomore effort in 2006, however, does not line up as neatly with his body of work. The Good Shepherd provides a history of the Central Intelligence Agency and a reflection on how the CIA’s operations have often run against democratic principles and this nation’s core values. With The Good Shepherd, De Niro demonstrates what he has learned from the great filmmakers who have directed him, supplies Matt Damon with a pivotal and challenging lead role, and incorporates a fantastic ensemble of actors to shed light on this country’s most powerful and mysterious institution.
De Niro structures this intricate saga by intercutting a day-by-day account of the week in 1961 that followed the C.I.A.’s greatest failure, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, with flashbacks to crucial moments in the life of Edward Wilson, the agency’s founding director of counterintelligence. On balance, The Good Shepherd feels more reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s work than that of Martin Scorsese with its decade-spanning scope, patient character building, and evocative art direction. Elements of The Godfather and The Conversation float through the film, but its portrayal of Edward Wilson and his primary Soviet adversary (code named Ulysses) recalls Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s relationship in Michael Mann’s Heat. Despite these influences, De Niro maintains a singular verve and a trenchant sense of humor throughout the nearly three hour running time. As Edward Wilson, Damon broadens his range significantly by investing a complicated, highly internalized, and subtle power in his performance as a man who has learned the grievous consequences of knowing too much and losing the trust of the intelligence community. While Wilson works ceaselessly to solve the puzzle of the agency’s defeat in Cuba, he negotiates a series of antagonistic relationships that define his life’s work. Lee Pace delivers an easy, well-mannered malice as Wilson’s Yale classmate and agency rival. Oleg Stefan conveys a worldly, respectful, and ominous presence as Wilson’s formidable opponent, Ulysses. A delightfully worn-in Alec Baldwin imparts a crass humanity as Wilson’s contact in the FBI. Michael Gambon, William Hurt, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, and Martina Gedeck round out the cast of Wilson’s professional associations. Angelina Jolie, Eddie Redmayne, Tammy Blanchard, and Timothy Hutton contribute notable dimension to the film as Wilson’s family and loved ones. De Niro tops off this ensemble by casting himself as the general who oversees the CIA’s creation while confessing to Wilson, “I see this as America’s eyes and ears; I don’t want it to become its heart and soul.”
Throughout The Good Shepherd runs an indictment of the prejudices of the English and U.S. American elite that shaped the global politics of the 20th century. De Niro levels an especially blunt critique against the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Ivy League educated U.S. American aristocracy who attempted to shape the world in their image. The film’s release coincided aptly with the final stretch of the second presidential term of Yale alumnus George W. Bush, during which his administration plummeted in popularity amid rampant reports of CIA overreach and the widespread implementation of torture in the War on Terror.
- John Parsell