The Good Shepherd is an incredibly complex work and one of the finest films of a quality ripe 2006. Oscar winner Eric Roth continues his brilliant work with this original screenplay, named one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood in the late 90's. A film about one of the CIA's founding officers isn't a dream project commercially for a studio but thankfully, the quality of the script was too great to ignore.
Shepherd follows the life of Edward Wilson (Damon) through his college years at Yale to his ascension as one of the CIA's founding officers and trusted veterans. His extraordinary dedication to his work comes with an unbearable price as he must sacrifice his family to protect his country. At one point in the film, Wilson faces an enormous choice- does he abandon his ideals for what he believes is right? Would this abandonment render his life, almost solely devoted to his country, meaningless? This, as well as a depiction of the result of Wilson's decision, are just two of the moments of brilliance in The Good Shepherd.
Wilson inhabits a world of betrayal and secrecies only enhancing the irony of the biblical quote inscribed on the CIA's wall- "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free". While we are given a glimpse into the life of a younger, more vital Wilson, the world he occupies creates the characteristically stolid, humorless man we come to know.
With its vast emotional core, the film seemingly effortlessly navigates one of the most volatile periods in the history of American intelligence while remaining character based. At 165 minutes, it is overlong but remains engaging for the vast majority of its running time. Had a few relatively insignificant scenes been cut, Shepherd could have retained the thrilling and energetic pace it often possesses. However, the length is justifiable as the scope of the film is incredibly large and very few scenes can be deemed unnecessary or dull.
Robert DeNiro's direction far exceeds that in his debut, 1993's "A Bronx Tale". Normally portrayed as a brute, here, DeNiro assuredly handles every moment with an innate tenderness we rarely see in his work. He appropriately treats Shepherd with a precise attention to detail often attributed to some of the greatest directors of our time.
A silently haunting Matt Damon carries the film on his shoulders. Edward Wilson is completely introverted and while Damon internalizes his thoughts, some of the films greatest moments are when emotion unknowingly pours out of Wilson through a mere flicker in his eyes. Angelina Jolie and Michael Gambon deliver very strong turns amidst a one of a kind cast topped off by the return of Joe Pesci, whose last acting stint was 1998's "Lethal Weapon 4".
The Good Shepherd is a film that demands to be seen. It is surprisingly apolitical as Wilson's life and its disintegration are the true story of this epic. While some call it "unsentimental", exactly the opposite is true. It is a testament to Roth's script that a film with such an introverted protagonist provides such a visceral, affecting experience. Shepherd is an intelligent, poignant look at the cost of blind dedication and constant secrecy. The effect this has on Wilson's life is irrevocable as we are taken on a remarkable cinematic journey, one that should be remembered as one of 06's greatest.