The Good Shepherd

Okay, I have to say this first: Matt Damon is absolutely wonderful. I rarely get all girly, but something about Matt just makes me want to sigh and bat my eyelashes. Ah, if only I was a real movie critic — I could have seen this movie days ago in a lovely private screening.

Okay, I have to say this first: Matt Damon is absolutely wonderful. I rarely get all girly, but something about Matt just makes me want to sigh and bat my eyelashes. Ah, if only I was a real movie critic — I could have seen this movie days ago in a lovely private screening. Instead, this time, a middle-aged couple reeking of onions sat down at the end of my row just as the film started, and the male half of the couple apparently wasn’t used to paying attention, because the whole last half of the movie was peppered with questions like, “What does that mean?” and “Is he a spy, too?” I may have to stop mentioning the annoyances of the theatre; it’s nice to vent, but it eats up valuable review space.

The wonderful Matt Damon plays super-spy Edward Wilson, a character very loosely based on real-life CIA founder James Jesus Angleton. The film traces decades of real-life history, beginning in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs invasion and flashing back often to Edward’s early career, like his indoctrination into the Skull and Bones Society. I thought that this was made-up, actually. The initiation rites shown here are so bizarre that I was sure it had to be fiction, but apparently it’s real, and Junior (or W, or President Bush, or whatever you want to call him) was a member, as were many other powerful men. Personally, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing that any men in power once thought it was a good idea to strip naked and mud wrestle each other while being urinated on from above.

As a member of an upper-crust family, Edward always associates with the movers and shakers of Washington, and he slowly becomes enmeshed in the growing intelligence network. Always tight-lipped, he becomes more and more contained and controlled as he rises through the ranks, and his cool stares are almost frightening at times. But, because he’s Matt Damon, women still throw themselves at him. Angelina Jolie throws herself at him (and she’s pretty scary herself in that scene, though in the opposite way) and he ends up having to marry her, because that’s just what you did in the forties when the girl got pregnant.

Now, Angelina is a good actress. She holds her own with Matt (did I mention he’s wonderful?), and that’s especially impressive because I have to say that I didn’t think her part was developed as it should have been. But there’s something about her that keeps me from forgetting that she’s Angelina, no matter how well she acts. I had the same problem watching a movie called The Grey Zone, which is based on the true story of a group of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz, being forced to assist in gassing fellow Jews. It’s a horribly bleak chapter in history, excellently portrayed, but every time Steve Buscemi was on-screen, I kept thinking, “Okay, there’s Steve,” and completely forgetting the fact that he was supposed to be a Hungarian Jew. Again, it was fine acting, but I just couldn’t forget he was acting. It’s the same here with Angelina. Maybe it’s the lips.

Anyway, Angelina has a little boy, who I decided was a demon child from the first moment he appeared on screen. He was nearly as distant as Edward in some ways, but somehow, much scarier. I kept imagining what the neighbors would say about him after they heard he went on a shooting spree. Edward’s father committed suicide when Edward was six, and Edward Jr. grows up almost equally fatherless. In later years, as so often seems to happen in such cases, he grows to idolize his father, and tries his best to be like him. Edward Jr. finally ends up being much more open, though, so you know he’s pretty much doomed in any sort of spying-related profession.

There are plenty of places in the movie where, if you’re paying attention (or perhaps listening to the middle-aged woman down the way explain things to her husband), you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a catastrophic car crash happening in slow motion, and you’re just aching to try and stop it, even though you know you can’t. A couple of carefully chosen words (as nearly all the words in this movie are), a certain look, and you know someone’s about to die or be betrayed. Both happen a lot in the movie, unsurprisingly.

Things do sometimes get a little confusing as the plot jumps around chronologically, though probably those who lived through the fifties and sixties, or at least studied them (unlike me, who gets lost quickly after the end of WWII) will do better. Even aside from the helpful captions giving the dates, though, Matt himself was a good way to tell what year it was. He has a youthful enough face that he never really looked as old as the character should have looked, but if you were to string all the scenes together in pure chronological order, you’d see him getting more and more careworn. His eyes grow old, even if the rest of him doesn’t.

I’m giving this one three and three-quarter idols. For myself (for Matt’s sake), I’d give it more like four and a half, but I’m trying very hard to be impartial. Though the machinations and twists are fascinating, and the acting first-rate overall, the film does get heavy at times, even ponderous under the weight of its explorations of morality. I tend to like that sort of thing, but it can get a little complicated, and even a little dull. If you think you’ll need someone to explain it all to you, though, please make sure that you both talk very, very quietly. I’m begging you.