Robert De Niro’s 2006 film THE GOOD SHEPHERD is not the sort of film to snuggle up to on a mellow Saturday night – which is probably why it didn’t make the sorts of waves it should have done. What’s more the pace is unremittingly slow and the central character Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) an excruciatingly cold fish. Still, I have to say that it is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking movies I’ve seen for a while (in the same sort of category as Syriana and Good Night & Good Luck). I saw it a few months ago and various moments stuck with me so much that I had to see it again and actually take notes (yes, I know, ¡geek! ¡alert!). This has led to a review for the Damaris’ CultureWatch which you can read here. So if it’s not too late, put the DVD of this film on your Christmas lists!


Here are the first couple of paragraphs of the review:

The Good Shepherd is an all-star slow burn of a film, but no less compelling for that. Robert De Niro expects much of his audience in his direction of what is, admittedly, a fairly drawn-out tale of trust and betrayal. As a result, some give up the struggle. What is ostensibly an espionage thriller gets dismissed as over-intellectualised and peculiarly cold or unaffecting. Matt Damon was clearly directed to play Edward Wilson as emotionally crippled as possible (and in that respect is not a million miles from Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens, the agonisingly buttoned-up butler in The Remains of the Day). Consequently, it is hard to root for the protagonist, unless that includes squirming and frustration on his behalf! There is no doubting the sincerity of his motives or emotions, but as he finds himself buffeted by every wind of international affairs from the Second World War to the Bay of Pigs débâcle under Kennedy’s presidency, the ‘greater good’ erodes his humanity. Flawed though this film may be, keeping pace with the slow burn certainly pays off. Images and dialogue from this film stayed with me for days. What makes The Good Shepherd so challenging is not its length or the political intricacies of its plot, but its searing analysis of what constitutes trust and loyalty – especially when different loyalties come into conflict. And in the end, the quest to gain a knowledge that has traditionally been the sole domain of God, results in having to make decisions for which the finite and sinful human mind is hopelessly unqualified.

Most of the story is shown in flashbacks, designed to help us understand the mysterious credits sequence. In that sense it follows a structure like the action-packed Pitt and Redford vehicle Spy Game. But this is not the world of Bond or even Bourne; it is far closer to the Cold War territory of Le Carré’s George Smiley: slow, methodical, discreet, and therefore much more tense and credible. To look at him, you would never guess Wilson was a senior intelligence chief as he commutes into Washington each day alongside the faceless Trilby-wearing functionaries of state. And that is precisely the point. In fact, this is, in some ways, an American homage to both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – except here the betrayals come far closer to home. Wilson even has his KGB nemesis, the mysterious Ulysses (played by the magnetic Ukrainian American Oleg Shtefanko), echoing Smiley’s KGB obsession, Karla. They pad around each other like wary panthers, each waiting for their adversary to blink first. This mutual obsession is personal and appears to have little to do with the machinations of their political overlords, a fact that has desperate and tragic consequences for Wilson’s family.

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  1. Drew Wolff

    “What is truth”, Pilate asked.

    And he didn’t bother to find out. I had this movie in my Blockbuster cue and this passage kept running through my mind throughout the whole movie.

    I have been on the receiving end of intelligence overconfidence and patriotic zeal (luckily non-lethal). Since Mark’s blog has such extensive readership, I recommend a movie and a couple of books that are real life versions of our overcondfidence in being able to self define good and evil without God.

    The Fog of War is an award winning documentary by Errol Morris where an 85 year old Robert McNamara (US SecDef for the Vietnam War – McNamara’s War) wags his finger at the camera and says don’t make the same mistakes I did. How much evil have we done think that we were doing good? There is a book of the same title that has been written since.

    Another really good non-fiction book about the early days of the CIA and its ramifications today is a book called All The Shah’s Men. Its the tale of how the CIA overthrew a budding democracy in Iran in the 50’s and put the Shah in power seen through the eyes of Director of Operations, Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Franklin). Pretty scary how that led to the hostage crisis and then the US villification in the Middle East.

    This movie kept me up at night. But I guess the most disturbing scene wasn’t one of the violent ones. It was the one where a little boy was so upset by his father’s lack of affection that he cried in Santa’s lap and wet his pants. His dad is silent through the whole thing. I guess its a slap in the face to never be silent around your kids – anybody for that matter. Reminds me to share my pride and share my love.

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