Good intentions can't save The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro's sophomore directing effort. As scripted by Eric Roth, the film takes on the monumental task of telling the history of the CIA while also providing decades of family drama in the life of a key operative played by Matt Damon. Even at close to three hours, The Good Shepherd can't satisfyingly handle this much story, so both of De Niro's masters wind up decidedly underserved, and what once seemed one of the season's most promising pictures plays like Oliver Stone's leftovers.
The Good Shepherd—executive produced by one-time De Niro director Francis Ford Coppola—opens in the days surrounding the Bay of Pigs invasion, with CIA agents murmuring, "They knew where to find us. There's a stranger in our house." And here is the film's punny central conceit: that a life devoted to shadowy, morally slippery pursuits cannot be compartmentalized. Gradually, one becomes the stranger in his own house, alien to his family and estranged from his soul.
To prove the point, De Niro flashes back to 1939 Yale, where Damon's Edward Wilson (loosely based on early-CIA chief James Jesus Angleton) is a golden boy ripe for high-powered recruitment. The path to power runs through infamous secret society Skull and Bones, which guarantees Wilson's loyalty by plying him for his darkest secret. One test of character leads to another, and soon Wilson has accepted the invitation of army general Bill Sullivan (De Niro, in a wry series of scenes) tasked with creating a foreign intelligence agency.
Meanwhile, Wilson romances a deaf girl (Tammy Blanchard) whose hesitation gives voracious vixen Clover (Angelina Jolie) the opportunity to literally pounce on Edward. Soon, Wilson's married with children, the war is on, and the young father ships off to London to learn the ropes in the Office of Strategic Services. When the CIA comes into its own, Wilson becomes a Cold War player in cautiously civil competition with KGB counterpart Ulysses (Oleg Stefan).
The story constantly threatens to become genuinely intriguing, in the manner of John Le Carré, but Roth (Oscar winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump and co-writer of Munich) never digs very deep and unfortunately eschews wit. De Niro adopts a cold, flat style that's the right idea for a true-to-life spy story but, in his inexperience, overkills it.
Damon dourly plays along, but never convinces us he ages past thirty, and since the picture seems to believe women are mercurial psychotics, I won't blame Jolie for her character being utterly baffling. Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin, Joe Pesci, Keir Dullea, and Timothy Hutton turn up, but Michael Gambon and William Hurt make the best impressions as spy-land surrogate fathers.
Oddly, The Good Shepherd scores more points as a story of the perversion of a father-son relationship: Wilson's heartbreaking disconnect with his young son leads to the grown boy (Eddie Redmayne) following his father's footsteps right into the CIA, where even coworkers must suspect each other.
It's to the filmmakers' credit that The Good Shepherd is serious-minded enough not to manufacture action sequences (outside of a couple of no-frills hits), but all the heavy-handed talk about trust feels old hat, and scattered references to "the black arts," "civilian oversight," and "'must worry' lists" lie there like so much set dressing. Wilson has a hobby of building ships in bottles, and the film finally resembles nothing so much as its most persistent symbol: an objet d'art crafted to impress with empty trickery.