“The Good Shepherd” unfortunately suffers from a lack of focus that mars what could have been a much more interesting film. Loosely based on real people and real events, it follows the trajectory of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a Yale graduate and Skull & Bones initiate who becomes part of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the CIA predecessor that provided intelligence operations during World War II.
Edward is a cold, reserved man whose private life becomes complicated when he impregnates Margaret (Angelina Jolie), the sister of a fellow Skull & Bones member. Told that he’ll “do the right thing,” Edward forsakes the woman he’s already in a relationship with and marries Margaret, despite the fact that he clearly doesn’t love her. Separated from his family for six years during the war, he comes home from Europe to a little boy he doesn’t know and a wife he is only barely more familiar with.
Meanwhile, he’s become part of the new CIA, diving into the Machiavellian dealings with the Soviet Union that were a major part of the Cold War. Who can he trust? Even among his fellow Americans, he can never be too sure if he’s dealing with a double agent. He learns to build trust with others based on almost-imperceptible indicators, but he continues to be a cipher to his family, much to the frustration of his wife.
The film bounces back and forth between Edward’s early days and his later activities, including the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961. Stitched through all of this is a mystery concerning a blurry photo and a doctored recording left anonymously for him. The final revelation really isn’t crucial to the plot, leaving me to wonder why director Robert DeNiro and screenwriter Eric Roth wanted to spend so much time on the attempt to figure out the mystery. While it was fascinating to learn, for example, that the CIA can figure out the make of a fan by its sound, and thus figure out what locales it would likely be found in, that sort of thing is more at home in a documentary, not a spy movie where we expect the plot to move at a brisk pace.
DeNiro and Roth give themselves so much territory to cover that the end result is muddled. Characters pop in and out of the different timelines, leaving us confused about their intentions, and some intrigue involving the head of the CIA, played by William Hurt, gets very little screen time, unfortunately. The actors do an admirable job with the material they’re given, but no one can really rise above the fray, given the problems with the story’s construction.
The film’s problems really become clear in the 15 minutes of deleted scenes that are the only extra on this disc. Approximately 10 minutes of them concern a sub-plot with Margaret’s brother, which wound up being excised from the film by having her say that he died during the war. Since we already see plenty of other examples of seemingly-trustworthy people who turn out to be double-crossers, the deletion wasn’t much of a loss. Neither was the brief scene with Edward’s second-hand man, played by John Turturro, since it touches on the “Not even my family can know what I’m doing” stuff that’s already made clear in the rest of the film.
One deleted scene, however, should have remained in the movie. It shows a Soviet informer playing a violin, and it provides the missing bookend for a scene between the man and Edward toward the end of the movie. The fact that it wasn’t included gave me even more reason to feel like this film’s narrative thrust was confused from the start. The story could have unfolded in a more linear fashion, since the mystery about the recording and the photo wasn’t really that crucial to the story anyway. (To answer those who might say otherwise, without spoiling anything: There were certainly other ways to bring those two characters together.)
We don’t even get a commentary, which makes me wonder if a Special Edition is in the works. Of course, my view is always that a film should be worthy of a more elaborate release, instead of the studio putting out a two-disc set simply because they think they can sell more copies. While “The Good Shepherd” is borderline as far as whether or not it deserves that, I would love to see a nice documentary about the creation of the CIA among the supplemental materials. It would probably be more interesting than the movie.