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Matt Damon stars, in a role not unlike his recent turn in Scorsese's The Departed, as a serious company man named Edward Wilson. In The Departed, he played a corrupt cop, serious and intense. Here he plays a key component to the nascent days of the CIA, helping to pave the way for blunders like the Bay of Pigs, seriously and intensely. As always, Damon's performance is nuanced and enjoyable. He can harbor a slightly disturbing fire behind his calm eyes and all-American countenance - he's good-looking, but something seems to be lurking under his relatively bland features when appropriate to the role.
The film flashes back and forth between the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, when accusations and blame are flying through the CIA hallways, and Wilson's early years at Yale. There, he is recruited into the Skull and Bones secret society, an organization of which George W. Bush and John Kerry are also members. The film covers this period in great detail as Wilson is recruited by FBI officer Sam Murach, played by the ever-sweating Alec Baldwin, to rat out a poetry professor who seems to be involved in some pro-Nazi activities, played by the excellent Michael Gambon. Along the way he also meets a beautiful young deaf woman, played by Tammy Blanchard, and the two kindle a tender romance. However, at one of the many Skull and Bones activities, the rituals and traditions of which are precisely and scarily conveyed by De Niro throughout the film, Wilson meets the voluptuous Clover, a role that feels only half-occupied by the beautiful Angelina Jolie. After a shotgun wedding, Wilson heads to Europe for several years, his new wife and son barely more than strangers in his life as he battles first the Nazis and then the communists.
The film's centerpiece revolves around a piece of audiotape and some photographs that Wilson receives in an unmarked envelope at his D.C.-area home. His crack team, including the excellent John Turturro as Ray Brocco, slowly deciphers the location and origin of the audio. What at first seems to be a possible MacGuffin becomes a pivotal, life-changing event for Wilson, also allowing him to show how far his fanatical and unbridled "patriotism" can take him. As one character puts it, the reason that CIA men don't use "the" before "CIA" is because one wouldn't use "the" before "God."
De Niro has crafted a subtly scathing view of the mysterious society of government spooks, certainly romanticized here but tempered by a feeling of cynicism. From a disturbing scene involving a torture tactic eerily similar to water boarding, to the stunned disbelief of Wilson and others involved that the U.S. government could have failed with the Bay of Pigs invasion, the concept of blind idealism and adherence to company standards is criticized heavily throughout. De Niro also has a good time along the way, detailing the coded banter of the CIA men, depicting a series of double crossings, and employing a repeated warning by the character he plays, the crusty military officer Bill Sullivan, to never trust anyone. There is also a humorous and insightful cameo by one of De Niro's early film cohorts that is definitely an audience pleaser. All said The Good Shepherd is a solid thriller with a deeper political sensibility that most holiday fare, that is more than appropriate for our days fighting the war on terror. SEE ALSO: www.thegoodshepherdmovie.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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