I’ve been a Matt Damon fan ever since I saw him in 1997′s Good Will Hunting. Since that time, I’ve seen almost everything he has been in, and I find that I enjoy his films far more often than not — with the major exception being the nearly inscrutable (after one viewing) Syriana, which I hated.
Since early trailers of The Good Shepherd made me think that this movie would be very similar to Syriana in terms of featuring a convoluted plot, I stayed away from it for a long time. But I finally gave in a few days ago, only to learn that my fears were at least partially justified.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Damon stars as Edward Wilson, a high-ranking official in the CIA’s counterintelligence division. The film opens in 1961, shortly after the Bay of Pigs debacle, which operation, the audience soon learns, failed because of an intelligence leak. The only clues the CIA have for identifying the leak are a blurry photograph and an audio recording. Wilson and a team that includes Ray Brocco (played by John Turturro) pore over the evidence in an attempt to identify the operative involved.
Meanwhile, the action on screen flashes back to 1939 to show Wilson as a Yale undergrad and Skull and Bones member. Wilson is soon approached by FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin), who convinces Wilson to spy on Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), a poetry professor suspected of being a Nazi plant. This episode shows Wilson’s patriotism and willingness to work for his country.
Later, Wilson meets General Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro) through his Skull and Bones connections. The General offers Wilson a job in the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA, which Wilson readily accepts. He’s then dispatched to London despite having recently wed Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie).
The rest of the film then chronicles Wilson’s rise through the ranks in the counterintelligence world, culminating in a post as the CIA’s director of counterintelligence. The narrative flashes back and forth between the present and the past, highlighting Wilson’s ongoing struggle against his Soviet counterpart known as Ulysses (Oleg Shtefanko) as well as his less-than-ideal home life. In addition, the mystery of the Bay of Pigs leak eventually gets solved, with surprising consequences for Wilson.
My Reaction: As much as I like Matt Damon, his presence alone wasn’t enough to turn The Good Shepherd into a worthwhile movie. I know a lot of critics liked this film and it currently sports an above-average 6.9 rating on IMDb.com, but I found the whole experience to be less than satisfying.
For one thing, the opening scenes were so deliberately obscure and cryptic that I had no idea what the hell was going on. The dialogue made no sense at all, and if it weren’t for the title cards and the detailed summary at Wikipedia, I probably would have tuned out completely. I can’t imagine trying to follow the story in the theater. Once the characters got a bit more established and the main plot began to take shape, things weren’t so bad, but that beginning… yikes!
Also, I didn’t like how slowly the story developed. I’m not saying I need shoot ‘em up action in every other scene, but I’m sure most would agree that this film moves along at a snail’s pace. While the ending was worth sticking around for, I wish the journey had been a bit more fun.
Given the fact that I base my film ratings on how well I enjoyed the first viewing and how likely I’d be to see the film again, I’m only giving The Good Shepherd 2 stars out of 5. Though most other people seem to think this one was better than average, you can bet I won’t be watching it again anytime soon!