- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

“The Good Shepherd” is a well made film. There’s not a shot out of place. It’s over 2-1/2 hours long, but engages from start to end.

Unfortunately, like its central character, CIA operative Edward Wilson, it has no soul.

A fictionalized version of factual events directed by Robert De Niro, “The Good Shepherd” opens on April 16, 1961, the day before the Bay of Pigs invasion. President Kennedy tells radio listeners that no Americans are involved in any attempt to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro. Cut to Central Intelligence Agency offices, where staff are discussing the planned invasion.

Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon and loosely based on James Angleton) is in charge of what operatives see as a cakewalk. But as the (failed) air strikes begin, it becomes clear that someone tipped off the Cubans to the plan. As Wilson investigates the source of the leak, flashbacks show how a smart college student with a passion for poetry became one of the most secretly powerful men in the world. The dizzyingly fragmented action starts in 1961 but goes back to 1939, then further back to the 1920s, returning to 1939, then through the ‘40s and ‘50s, all the while intercut with the 1961 scenes.

Wilson’s rise seems simple: He was always willing to put patriotism before people. His first betrayal was of his poetry professor (Michael Gambon, Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” films), who organized German sympathizers in 1939. He’ll betray many more people close to him before the movie is finished, and eventually have to choose which is more important: his country or his family.

Mr. De Niro’s cast is overstuffed with talented actors, all pretty convincing playing characters that age 20 years over the course of the film. Mr. Damon puts in one of the year’s most restrained performances. He has the look of an overworked civil servant down perfectly.

Also notable are Mr. Gambon as the knowing but ineffectual intellectual; Tammy Blanchard as deaf love interest Laura, the second person Wilson betrays; Billy Crudup, almost unrecognizable as Wilson’s suave British counterpart; and British funnyman John Sessions in a serious turn as a defecting KGB spy.

History buffs will enjoy picking out the real-life characters portrayed, including two that seem to be based on Cambridge Five members Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby.

Among the few disappointments is Angelina Jolie, who plays Wilson’s wife. From the moment she appears on the screen — as the oversexed sister of one of Wilson’s classmates — her character seems over the top. It’s likely the fault of the script, not the actress, however. Her character is implausible in many respects.

Joe Pesci’s unimportant cameo, his first role in eight years, seems created just to give him something to do.

Edward Wilson gives nothing away — not to his family, not to the camera — and neither, in the end, does “The Good Shepherd.” An impeccable technical achievement and a stellar cast can’t hide the missing heart of this story. It’s hard to feel sorry for an all but forgotten wife when we only knew her as a caricature. And it’s hard to mourn America’s lost innocence when, in this telling, it never had any to begin with.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Good Shepherd”

RATING: R (some violence, sexuality and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert De Niro. Written by Eric Roth.

RUNNING TIME: 157 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thegoodshepherdmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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