A shepherd tends to his herd, and keeps a lookout for that wolf in sheep's clothing. Robert De Niro directs The Good Shepherd, written by Eric Roth (who also wrote Munich, Ali and The Insider), a tale about the early days of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), its founding and the black eat black world of spy versus spy, as seen from the fictional Edward Bell Wilson (Matt Damon), tasked with the responsibility of setting up the all important counterintelligence wing.
Clocking in at almost 3 hours, it is time well spent, as you observe how this side of the world really works - with its truth, supposed truth, and fabricated lies which look very much like the truth. Through Edward's experiences, you realize, just as he was warned very much early, that things are always not quite they seem, friends can be enemies and enemies friends, and that the only person you can ever trust, is yourself. And sitting through the movie, you'll feel somewhat frustrated as you also partake in trying to make sense of statements, of trying to figure out just who's who and who's right (or not) in this double-triple crossing world where betrayal and distrust are tasks to handle day to day.
And does this constant looking over your shoulder and distrust affect your personal life? Sure. We see how Edward's own is a little screwed up, and while he keeps his serious demeanour on all the time, he's actually quite a casanova. Trapped in a loveless marriage with Margaret (Angelina Jolie) with whom he married out of responsibility, we see how his profound deep sense of patriotism always put his country above self and family, thus bringing in so much tension, and it seemed to show that men in his position, have a hard time with work-life balance.
The ensemble cast makes this picture very riveting to follow, and Matt Damon trades his fisticuffs as Jason Bourne for a more stoic performance as THE man within the circle of trust who's entrusted with the responsibility of learning from the British, and then setting up the counterintelligence team from scratch. Rarely smiling, strict looking, and possessing this no nonsense attitude. Being on the hot seat, he puts in quite a one-dimensional performance for the character of Edward, but you can feel his pain and dilemma of having to be the best character judge out there. Angelina Jolie has yet another flower vase role, with nothing much to do except to exude pain from within each time she gets rejected by Edward emotionally.
The narrative is fractured and there's a constant flashback which weaves itself into the current timeline, making the flow quite jarring at times. By not having a younger actor for Edward in his youth, you'll have to rely very much on the dates that are shown to put yourself in the correct timeline. Up until almost two-thirds of the movie does the past catch up with the present, and it becomes easier then. Despite being billed as a movie about the founding of the CIA, you don't get to see that much, and the Agency more or less just sprang into existence in the movie.
Despite its flaws, those who like the usual spy-vs-spy movies will enjoy The Good Shepherd. However, do bear in mind that this is not a fantasized stylized action movie like Bond or Bourne. There's no big-bang action pieces, but plenty of mind games, behind the scenes, and in actuality, a personal story of one man's struggles with grave worldly uncertainties and its share of shady characters.