The Good Shepherd is a fastidious film about the birth of the CIA as seen through the eyes of an equally fastidious man: Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). Edward lives his life like a procedural, completely without outward emotion or warmth, he walks through life collecting information and alternatingly stopping the flow of it as the CIA is forged around him. Edward is not the head of the CIA, but those around him say that he’s its heart and soul. If that’s true, then the heart of the CIA is dead and cold, for by the end of the movie whatever life there was left in Wilson has been burned away by fire.
Matt Damon has of course played a spy before, but Edward Wilson is Jason Bourne’s polar opposite. Bourne lives a life of action, Wilson lives one of paperwork, phone calls, and information. The Good Shepherd is a spy movie, but one without any action. The high-octane stuff usually associated with the job has been stripped away in favor of following around an emotionally frozen family man in a trench coat, doing the real dirty work of the job from a telephone, and struggling to find feelings within himself the way a serial killer might force himself to pretend to be normal.
Director Robert De Niro’s no frills approach to spying is probably a more realistic one, but not always as interesting. Edward Wilson is so cold and distant, that the movie often feels that way too. Damon plays him as if he’s disconnected from the world, distant from it. When he does connect, it’s only for a moment before he retreats back behind his iron walls of silence and stoicism. This is not James Bond.
The broader strokes of the movie are just as distant. It attempts a fictionalized retelling of the CIA’s construction, but the intricacies of secret societies and political maneuvering are only brushed up against. Because the film’s focus is so narrow, centered entirely on Edward Wilson’s disconnected perspective, we miss out on almost everything. Wilson is a cold, distant man in the eye of a hurricane we never quite understand.
Maybe if the 165 minute movie was shorter it might be more appealing. Watching Edward’s life unfold in flashbacks as a small part of a big picture of secrets is fascinating, it just goes on forever. The movie passes over ending after possible ending, to keep following Wilson through the by the numbers steps of his life. By its end whatever humanity might have been left in Edward is gone, replaced by a stoic repository of secrets. Whatever humanity the film might have is lost too. Damon’s performance is subtle and intriguing but Eric Roths’s script never really gives us a clear window into his soul. Who is Edward Wilson? I can honestly say I don’t know. He’s a man in a trench coat and a hat. Maybe he’s not even a man, just a department of information.