One of the more frank and downright startling films of the year, "The Good Shepherd," is about the formation of the CIA, and one of its most devoted members.
In 1961, CIA operative Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) must re-examine the days leading up the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion, in order to discover which of his own men leaked secrets. Through flashbacks, his life is shown, from his recruitment into a secret society called the Skull and Bones while in college, to his involvement in World War II espionage, to his eventual immersion into the unhappy life of a man who is dedicated to national security, even at the expense of his wife (Angelina Jolie) and son (Eddie Redmayne).
Damon is haunting as Wilson, having experience as a spy character from playing Jason Bourne in "The Bourne Identity," "The Bourne Supremacy" and the forthcoming "The Bourne Ultimatum."
His evolution from an idealistic, enthusiastic Yale poetry student into a cold, unfeeling shell of a man is incredibly believable. Jolie is unusually grounded as Wilson's long-neglected wife, Margaret, who also eventually becomes a ghost of her former happy self. William Hurt, John Turturro, and Alec Baldwin play some of Wilson's co-workers, all of whom are uncomfortably dedicated to their profession. Turturro in particular is memorable as Ray Brocco, whose interrogation methods are downright frightening. Playing somewhat smaller, but no less important roles are Joe Pesci and director Robert De Niro, who plays General Bill Sullivan, the man who gets Wilson so heavily involved with the agency in the first place.
"The Good Shepherd" is De Niro's first time directing since the 1993 production of "A Bronx Tale." At one point, Francis Ford Coppola was attached to direct, but opted to produce instead.
Besides doing a masterful job acting, De Niro holds together this long, complex story very well. The film is somewhat hard to take in its lengthiness, but it certainly pays off in the end. The topics of trust and safety are first and foremost.
Often in spy films, the audience trusts the main character only to have their minds blown by an unexpected twist, usually one that makes little sense.
"The Good Shepherd" has an ending that's both logical and satisfyingly surprising. The one nagging detail is that Wilson is portrayed as an anti-hero in almost every way; despite his callousness to his family, he does do everything in his power to protect the country. Of course, as his son points out, Edward Wilson's inability to make his family feel secure shows just how misplaced priorities can be, and how selfless devotion can hurt in more ways than one.