With a murky script by Eric Roth, who wrote the intolerable Munich (with Tony Kushner), the origins of the CIA are depicted in the person of Edward Wilson (implacable Matt Damon), a Skull and Bones college kid who is tapped for spy games during World War 2.
But, first, Damon's inscrutable character is introduced in a Bay of Pigs Cuba invasion plot—that was one of President Kennedy's foreign policy debacles—that ties into a scheme implicating someone close to Edward Wilson. This monotonous movie moves like molasses, but it does move and it is easy to follow, provided one has a good grasp of history, and, with an all-star cast on a global stage, the progression at times seems terribly important.
Only it isn't. Not really. And it is equally easy to see the plot points coming a mile away. Keeping the convoluted plot boiling are a cast of sharply drawn characters in a rowdy roster that recalls those Seventies melodramas like The Hindenburg and The Cassandra Crossing. While those pictures imply an impending resolution, The Good Shepherd wallows in contrived confusion.
Beginning with an existentialist flair when Wilson enters an office marked "not an exit," signifying the Byzantine entry to U.S. Cold War espionage, the action involves Nazi spies, Soviet agents, Brits, Cubans and Africans. It isn't that the equation does not add up—and some of it doesn't—so much as finish with a subtotal. To explain the workmanlike plot structure is to spoil the picture's few surprises.
Suffice it to say that Wilson has a preference for deaf women, a weakness for one rich vixen (Angelina Jolie), and—other than a knack for remembering facts—a talent for dressing up as a girl to entertain his East Coast college-bred types. What any of this has to do with defending the free world is proof, by The Good Shepherd's logic, that spying is incompatible with personal happiness.
On hand for this dry exercise is the screen's predominant expressionless actor, Damon, joined by Jolie as an abandoned housewife—looking like brown-haired Madonna—Eddie Redmayne as Wilson's son, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, John Turturro and Timothy Hutton. Add to that Mr. DeNiro chewing the scenery as a diseased CIA big shot and it's too much and then some. Trapped in a meaningless story, they are playacting.
Damon has the horn-rimmed McGeorge Bundy type down pat, which isn't saying much, but nearly everyone in the movie, except Jolie, whose character possesses the only signs of life, speaks in riddles and stands for nothing. It's not in The Good Shepherd's favor that Damon's Wilson does not perceptibly age in 20 years or that the protagonist in the world's most powerful spy agency has the look, personality and motivation of a cardboard box.
In the end, The Good Shepherd does pull off an accomplishment of sorts: in conveying the idea that defending America during the Cold War means losing one's soul, Mr. DeNiro has created what may be the first pro-Soviet U.S. movie since the Soviet Union ceased to exist.