The Good Shepherd:
*****out of *****
On one level, “The Good Shepherd” is a thriller about espionage – a spy film.
But part of the artistry of the film is that it also works on a deeper level as a meditation on secrets and the keepers of secrets.
Implicit within both the film’s storyline and its themes is an old adage by E.M. Forster: “If forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.” “The Good Shepherd” is about a man who chooses his country over his friends and family, and the lifelong consequences of this decision.
The man in question, and the central character of the film, is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a member of the secret society Skull & Bones, who serves as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and is a founding member of the CIA after the war.
The film starts in 1961 as Wilson investigates the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and then continues to flash back and forth between Wilson’s past and present.
Before the war, Wilson married a woman named Clover Russell (Angelina Jolie) and had a son, Edward Jr. But Wilson’s service to his country both during and after the war tragically isolates him from his family.
Tragically is the key word here, because “The Good Shepherd” is nothing if not a tragedy. Not only does Edward Wilson fall from grace, but he also seems fated to do so by his upbringing and past; from Skull & Bones to the OSS to the CIA Wilson lives his life in service secret societies, and he is either unable or unwilling to sever the bond that connects him to these secret societies.
Damon deserves accolades for his performance as Wilson, a man who is stoic but certainly not devoid of emotion.
Observe the scene where Wilson reunites with an old college girlfriend and the two talk and end up having an affair. It is in scenes like these that we understand that Wilson, far from being an impassive shell, is actually simmering with emotions; it’s just that Wilson rarely allows himself to act on his emotions.
One critic has already lauded “The Good Shepherd” as “‘The Godfather’ of CIA movies,” a well-observed comparison since both films present an insider’s view of mysterious institutions.
But the film also reminded me of a movie called “The Conversation” (1974), where Gene Hackman played a character who, like Damon’s, was a repository of secrets, and whose commitment to his job left him an isolated, paranoid wreck at the film’s end.
The cost of our decisions on ourselves and on our friends and family is at the very core of “The Good Shepherd,” and it is this theme that elevates the film from spy thriller to quiet, tragic masterpiece.
Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.