Bright Lights Film Journal

The Good Shepherd: Bah!

Yale? Wasps? Homo-erotic subtext? Do any of these spell Robert De Niro? I’m guessing “no,” but Bobby, in his first outing as director, obviously felt that “do what you don’t know” was the way to go. Well, often it is a good idea, but in this film Bobby takes more than a few stumbles, creating a ponderous, 2¾ hour “epic” reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, another case of paisano meets Wasp.

The Good Shepherd stars Matt Damon as super-Wasp Edward Wilson, who studies poetry at Yale, engaging in a little nude mud-wrestling on the side (as a pledge to Skull and Bones). At the start of World War II, Eddie forsakes poetry for the spy business, and spends the next twenty years as an emotionally constipated hard-ass who botches every assignment he’s given. Along the way he breaks the heart of a dear sweet deaf girl (Tammy Blanchard) and more or less ruins the lives of his wife (Angelina Jolie) and son (Eddie Remayne). Yeah, that was the Fifties!

I’ve read that De Niro labored for ten years to bring The Good Shepherd to the screen. It’s hard to imagine why. This film struggles to get to the heart of Waspiness, and when it gets there, what does it find? Damned little. Yeats described Keats as “a small boy with his nose pressed up against the pastry shop window,” something Keats could have said of Yeats with equal justice, had their chronologies been reversed. De Niro and scriptwriter Eric Roth painstakingly load the dice against poor Eddie throughout the entire picture, for what purpose? If Eddie had been a good father, and a good husband, what would have happened? Would Eddie have not been fooled by the commies time after time? Would we have won the Cold War more quickly? Would there have not been a Cold War at all? What’s most remarkable about The Good Shepherd is the pettiness of its conclusions.

As a Washingtonian, the funniest part of this picture is watching Eddie report for work, not at the CIA, but at what always was, and still is, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, South Building. (The Wilson Memorial Arch over Independence Avenue gives a nice visual.) Pre-Langley, the CIA was located in the worst office space in Washington, the “temporaries”, temporary office buildings constructed during World War I and not torn down until the late Sixties.