The late career of Robert De Niro has been an odd one, an almost entirely unexpected procession of choices from an actor who once intimidated everyone. There certainly aren’t an abundance of meaty roles for a guy in his seventies, but it’s still hard to think of the young De Niro getting excited about or even signing onto the gentle comedies that he’s stuck with now. In retrospect, I wonder if The Good Shepherd, his second and to date last directorial effort, was a sort of last stab at still making the sort of movies that better suited his sensibilities. This review was still fairly early in my process of rejuvenating my film writing, and it was one of the instances when I took advantage of the openness of the form to tack on some additional thoughts, something I never could have done in the old days of radio and print. I’ve gone ahead and included those extra words here. My predilection for using music lyrics as the headlines to reviews was in place by this point. I really stretched in this instance, using the opening lines of Wire’s “Outdoor Miner” (“No blind spots in the leopard’s eyes can only help to jeopardize the lives of lambs”) because the next few words are “the shepherd cries.”
Matt Damon seems like perfect casting for the lead of The Good Shepherd. The new film, the second directorial effort from Robert De Niro, provides a fictionalized account of the genesis of the CIA with Damon playing the man at the forefront of counterintelligence development. Despite his star status, Damon virtually oozes a company man squareness these days. It’s actually pretty easy to imagine him fitting in a big sales conference or around a middle-management meeting table, so he seems a natural for this cold war era history lesson on the men in hats who made sure America ruled the world. The problem is, there’s no real performance to latch onto. Damon is a active witness with a close-mouthed impassivity. Sure, that distant chill suits the character, but there’s no undercurrent there, nothing behind the eyes to suggest an inner intelligence, passion or aptitude.
Now take those same observations and apply them to De Niro’s film as a whole. The Good Shepherd is well-meaning and stout, layered with information and complexities with a resolute, admirable confidence in the audience to sort it all out. It lacks any sort of propulsive spirit, the sort of tingly creativity that could make this material vivid. The film doesn’t build, things just happen and it never coheres into a meaningful statement. It’s not a requirement that the film celebrate or condemn the CIA, or find the right approach to use this backwards gaze to offer pertinent, sly commentary on the state of the world today, but anything like that would have given the film a welcome resonance. Instead we get a series of scenes, some admittedly well-executed, in search of a reason for being.
This has apparently been a dream project of De Niro’s for a decade or more; it’s construction bears no marks of a long-developed wellspring of ideas, but instead is weighed down by the measured care of a creator leery of getting something wrong. The film is like a big, underseasoned meal. It may provide sustenance, but there’s very little flavor.
Addendum (from the comments of the original post): After further consideration, I think De Niro was counting on flatly depicting the enveloping power of the CIA to be enough to carry the film, but it needs more drama to make that power feel real, for us to really connect with the thoroughness of the organization’s influence. If it’s not particularly surprising or shocking to consider the path of the world being set by those shaped by and still beholden to weird backroom rituals (and it’s not to me) there’s ultimately very little in the film that packs a punch.
Still, I think my desire to rush through the writing of this review led me to sell the film a little short, leaving out the paragraph or two that could have highlighted things I liked about it. While Angelina Jolie is now burdened with far too much personal baggage from her outside fame to completely settle into a role like the weary wife, I think she injects her character with an inner life and subtly evolving physicality that is a reminder that she was a very interesting actress not too long ago.
I also think when De Niro gets down to the nuts and bolts of the work of the CIA, it generally works well. Now that we’ve spent the past several years inundated with the high-tech miracles of “C.S.I.” and other procedurals, it’s fascinating to watch the agents break down the details of a grainy photograph and a warbling recording with comparatively primitive tools.