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Published January 1st, 2005 | by Mike Barnard

The Good Shepherd Review

Classification: 15 Director: Robert De Niro Rating: 2.5/5

Espionage spy thrillers normally combine men in suits standing in shadows with a healthy dose of tense action on strategic missions. Not in the case of The Good Shepherd. Its unveiling of the beginnings of America’s Central Intelligence Agency is remarkably dry and uncharismatic despite the lead role going to Jason Bourne himself, Matt Damon, and Robert De Niro on hand directing. Its weighty subject matter is a heavy burden on other fine actors, such as Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt and Alec Baldwin, too, squeezing out their zest and leaving behind hard facts for a very serious piece of entertainment. The Good Shepherd seems to have more to offer beyond its steely exterior, yet fails to let us get under the skin of the men who made the important decisions.

This story of the birth of the CIA in the 1940s is seen through the life of one man: Edward Wilson (Damon). He is a patriot whose privileged but tragic childhood has led him to understand the value of secrecy, discretion and commitment to honour. Due to his acute mind, he is recruited for the London unit of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two. Leaving behind a wife (Jolie) he married by duty when she became pregnant, and missing the first years of his son’s life, he develops an emotional distance from all but his work in communication, intelligence, counter-intelligence and misdirection. When approached to join the CIA as one of its founding operatives, he begins to find separating the truth and lies in his private life more difficult than he had ever intended.

As a personal journey, The Good Shepherd could have been so much more, witnessing the erosion of a man’s human qualities to the point he is bound only by a sense of duty to his country. However Eric Roth’s screenplay is more intent on providing an accurate portrayal of the real conversations men in suits with immense power have. The answer? Long and very dull ones. Being privy to information is not fascinating on screen, especially when it leads to yet more talk in darkened rooms. The smoke and mirrors rarely become transparent enough to understand exactly who is doing what to whom and at nearly three hours, it is a slog to get through.

Behind the seemingly endless talking, there are flashes of life. Whenever Jolie is on screen, or, indeed, any of the women, there is an outpouring of dramatic interest to awake The Good Shepherd from its trance-like state. The relationship between Wilson and his son also flourishes in the final third of the movie when the waiting around for something to happen finally begins to materialise. The problem lies in the effort it takes to get there in the first place. De Niro could have helped matters by drawing closer to the characters he seems intent on keeping at arms length or even being more ruthless with the level of detail that eats up oceans of time. If only the juicy bits could have been served up sooner or with a little more pace, The Good Shepherd would be a lot easier to recommend. As it is, there are shocking moments of callousness by Wilson towards the end, but these feel like a consolation rather than a pay off. A worthy movie great for American history enthusiasts, and those with the patience to listen to men waffle for hours.


This release has 16 minutes of deleted scenes which add to the already hefty running time but fill in some details.

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