“The Good Shepherd” is a cumbersome and lengthy film, which is as challenging to understand as a spy plot unless you are a CIA agent. The Internet has already been flooded with reactions to “The Good Shepherd,” all of which boil down to one thing: “terrible nerdiness.” The reaction is understandable: the plot lines are fragmentary and confused, the main character is silent and unsympathetic, and the director is almost as uncommunicative and not inclined to give explanations. You have to relentlessly strain your attention to catch the logic in which the events, dates, and characters change each other on the screen. And in response to all the perplexing questions, instead of tips and hints, you get the deaf silence of a man who is used to trusting no one. Regardless, “The Good Shepherd” is a powerful picture and worth watching. Whatever the bad character of De Niro’s new brainchild, it clearly was created with intelligence and passion. And it would be a mistake not to appreciate it.
The complex composition, which takes the viewer from 1961 to 1939 and from there to 1946, is not at all the film’s weak point. The atmosphere of the fledgling CIA (which is precisely what De Niro concentrates on) is perfectly conveyed by these jumps in time, understatements, and unsolved codes. However, it’s not just the atmosphere. In the first shots, when Wilson mechanically walks down the hall in his coat and hat, you can already understand that the central character’s inner world mirrors the outer world.
De Niro raises a wonderfully profound question in his movie: did the soulless OSS machine (in the future, the CIA) crush the man and make him into the same machine, or did the man himself give birth to the soulless OSS machine? There is no answer to this question: it is a snake devouring itself. The CIA is Edward Wilson, a calm and grim agent, ready to commit treachery and murder without the slightest remorse, obeying the logic of some cruel duty. And Edward Wilson is the CIA, which dictates to its agents the brutal rules of the game and pushes everyone on the path of severe self-isolation from the outside world.
Matt Damon’s performance in “The Good Shepherd” is above all praise. At first, his character appears as a reserved young man who, guided by the arguments of reason and old General Sullivan (Robert De Niro), chooses his way of life and becomes a spy. But already here, against the background of the senior general, who declares with the sincerity of a dying man: “I won’t last a year. I love America,” Wilson looks indifferent, cold, cynical. The further on, the more there will be in him that eerie coolness about everything around him that will help him always act precisely and unmistakably. At the same time, desperately alone in his world, he will evoke dread and pity in the viewer, similar to that one feels for Russell Crowe’s character in “A Beautiful Mind.” Wilson’s only hobby, and at the same time, almost his only connection with his son, is the ships in vials.
A small boat with its sails folded is launched with tweezers into the narrow neck of a bottle, and there the sails unfold: the miniature ship remains forever behind the glass walls, and nothing can take it out, just like Wilson himself from his case. Damon, as hard as it was to expect from the former Bourne, in “The Good Shepherd” plays a Kafka’s character who has migrated to Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils”: stiff, lifeless movements, the same dull face, a complete lack of shame and a suspicious compliant attitude that brings nothing but pain as a result. The victim of “brilliant middling,” a strange pity and love, is Wilson’s wife, played by the beautiful Jolie, who manages to wilt like a tropical flower over the course of the film. The love story (if I may say so, given the main character’s inability to feel this way) is shown in a sketchy way in the film. But it clearly expresses the cruel absurdity of life’s collision with heartless mechanisms.
“The Good Shepherd” won the Silver Bear for Best Actor in Berlin, and quite rightly so, it seems. However, it is not only the excellent acting that distinguishes this film, but also the vivid camerawork (Robert Richardson, who has worked with Tarantino, Scorsese, and Stone) and the scope of the themes raised. After “The Bronx Tale,” De Niro’s first directorial experience, “The Good Shepherd,” looks like a very mature and wise film.
American audiences did not appreciate the movie: “Shepherd” in the States is not even close to recouping the budget of $ 110 million. And all because De Niro in the film did almost as well as once in the movie “Ronin”: the sacramental question “What was in the suitcase” slyly squinted and replied: “I forgot.” It’s hard to expect that in other countries, moviegoers will be more sympathetic to “The Good Shepherd.” Although, for those who understand, the release of De Niro’s new film on the screens is a reason to think carefully about how and to what extent it is worth serving your country.