The Good Shepherd is a big and important film, it proclaims it with its title and its theme. It is a film about the CIA and its creation. It is a film about the tragedies of work, of marriage and of fatherhood. After the portentousness of the theme and the title, the film itself probably underwhelms. We start with Damon remembering his life during the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961. We start with a suicide. We come to Yale where a young Matt Damon is recruited into the secret service of the US to spy on his Professor, supposedly a German spy. After a successful operation, Damon's character ends up married to the sister of a friend of his who seduces him and becomes pregnant with his child. At their wedding, a retired general invites him to join the nascent CIA and within a week, Damon's character is on his way to London to join up with the British secret service. From there he follows the conquering armies to Berlin and administers a spying project in the destroyed city and then back to the United States, through Latin America and of course onto Cuba and to the helm of the CIA.
From that account, you'll glimpse one of my main problems with the film. It is incredibly episodic and though there are a few themes that bind together those episodes, it is hard to relate to any of the more minor characters. His wife played by Angelina Jolie sashays across the screen, sexy at one moment, a matron at another, an adultress, a mother but never a real character- always a cartoon. Damon's character has an affair with a German woman- we see her toss her body at him, then he kills her, that is about all there is to her character. In and out the characters go without us ever getting anything from them. This matters because it also happens to infuse the accounts we have here of historical moments. Take one near the end, as they organise the Cuban events, Damon goes to the house of a mafiosi played by Joe Pesci (a nice piece of casting). Pesci's character has one scene- that's it and we learn nothing more about him nor about the dilemmas of the criminals working with the law or the law working with the criminals in Cuba. Of course Pesci's character gets some nice lines to say about Damon's and about the CIA- but that doesn't matter, nice lines only count when the characters behind them mean something in the context of the film, here they don't.
Because of that it is hard to get a handle on Damon's character. He is meant to be a human failure and a professional success. Working for the CIA drives him monomanically mad. He is too secretive, too callous in his behaviour to others and stays Stalin like in the shadows, working at obscure and sinister bureacratic tasks. Unfortunately the film doesn't give us enough insight into his relations to others to understand this. We hear about but do not see the damage that this inflicts on his family and friends. Damon character's distress is related to his father's suicide in some way, or to the bullying of the Yale Fraternity house- the skull and bones- but we do not really understand even this. The film's episodic nature makes it difficult to understand Damon as a character because it is difficult to understand any of the characters around him as characters. Never has it been more truly shown that a human being is the sum of his interractions with other people: if only there were a few fewer people in this film, we might get to see some of Damon's interractions in a bit more context and understand him in a deeper way.
Robert De Niro, the director and stars don't do a bad job on this film at all- but the frustration is more manifold because they don't. The aspirations are so high: telling the story of the CIA and the story of a man's failure to achieve that they make the slight acheivement even more galling. There are some very fine performances here: Michael Gambon as Damon's character's professor at Harvard gives a particularly good performance as a British traitor. One wishes that several of them (including Pesci) had been better used. Ultimately though this is not a great film at all- it is a film that aspires to greatness, and that alas is not the same thing.