Robert De Niro is one of the greatest film actors of all time, so it's no surprise that he wanted to direct. What is surprising is that, unlike, say, Kevin Costner or Barbra Streisand, he did not use his directing career to film a two-hour love letter to himself.
Instead, he's created one of the most intelligent, subtle and engaging films of the year. The emphasis is really on intelligent: The Good Shepherd assumes that its audience is capable of following a long and complex narrative that winds across 22 years, five continents and nearly 20 major characters. You might want to bring a notebook.
In spite of its scope and length (The Good Shepherd clocks in at 13 minutes less than three hours), it's never dull. Rather, it's one of those films that grows increasingly engaging, with tiny clues building into large plots and little ticks becoming strong characterizations.
Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, the head of the CIA's counter-intelligence program. The character is loosely based on James Jesus Angleton, a man who's been mythologized by conspiracy theorists who imagine that he killed Kennedy, covered up a UFO landing and set up a Zionist government in the United States.
De Niro plays Gen. Bill Sullivan, America's intelligence czar in the '40s. In a wicked twist, Sullivan has a debilitating disorder that is causing him to dissolve from the feet up. De Niro has to be commended for giving himself a small, unglamorous role that perfectly suits his skills. Confined to a chair in his few brief scenes, there is little chance that he will pop up and begin dancing with wolves.
Just before the United States enters World War II, Sullivan recruits Wilson into the Office of Strategic Services, telling him they need good Americans, and thus, "No Jews or negroes and very few Catholics." On the day of Wilson's wedding to Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), he receives orders to head to Europe and begin spying on the Nazis.
From here, an intensely complex set of schemes and double-crosses weave back and forth through time, beginning with Wilson's college days--where he studies poetry and espionage--and ending somewhere after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As Wilson tries to figure out who he can trust, he destroys his family, shuttles Nazi scientists to America, overthrows a Latin American government, waterboards some Soviets and topples the head of the CIA.
Damon plays the part with so much reserve, he makes Connecticut Episcopalians seem like hippies. He's assisted by what may be the most talented cast ever assembled: Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci and John Turturro drift through his world as an assortment of spies, mafiosi, friends and enemies.
They're all photographed in a kind of mixed light and evil darkness that makes even Hutton seem dangerously louche. There are some gorgeous black-and-white sequences that dissolve into color, and one spectacularly long crane shot through the rubble of postwar Berlin. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (the true genius behind Kill Bill) has a real knack for period effects, creating an immersive experience of being stuck in the paranoid, hat-wearing, emotionally repressed middle of the century.
The dialogue enhances the effect: The spies all speak in a James Bond/John le Carré language, where "the rocking chair is smiling" means "the president likes your plan," and "bring your bathing suit" means "let's take over Cuba." And when Damon says, "I love you," it sounds like he's bluffing.
Which is how De Niro ties the personal into the political. Instead of a cheesy and obvious tale of a man's emotional life being subsumed by his work, The Good Shepherd creates a sense that the emotional life is part of the work. Every affair, every loving gesture toward his son and each glance at his wife is really an attempt by Wilson to assess loyalties and create alliances. It's chilling, and it only works because of the careful presentation of faces and gestures.
It's stunning that this is only De Niro's second directing credit, as it seems like the work of a seasoned pro. While I think the density of the film may be off-putting to audiences more used to simple narrative and two-twist spy stories, the rewards of this richer style are immeasurably greater than what can be had in either a standard thriller or straightforward family drama. I really hope De Niro continues directing, because those of us who like complexity aren't well-served by American cinema, and De Niro has shown that it's a style that America's actors, cinematographers and writers can handle as well as anyone in the world.