A lot of critics have been writing off The Good Shepherd, an epic tale of the early years of the CIA, as boring and overlong. Personally, I found it surprisingly engaging - though it does lack the suspense you'd expect from such provocative material. The tone of The Good Shepherd is in fact an overwhelmingly sad one, as it follows the rise of an emotionless spy (well played by an ice-cold Matt Damon) from his college-age induction into the Skull & Bones, the infamous secret society at Yale that also counts several Bush family members as alumni, to his work in counterintelligence in Europe during and after World War II, to his involvement in the disastrous CIA-engineered invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs in 1961. (Damon's character, Edward Wilson, is fictional, but rumor has it that he is based on former CIA chief James Jesus Angleton.)
It's unusual that an actor's actor like De Niro (who plays a small part in the star-studded ensemble) should make a film so short on monologues and "actorly" exchanges. The Good Shepherd has a lot of information to pack into its two and a half hours, and it moves along from scene to scene and location to location with a steely efficiency befitting its main character. Yet I'm not going to cite it as being too long, or packing in too many characters, or any of the usual gripes.
However, I do find fault with Eric Roth's script. For what could have been a great movie for conspiracy theorists gets continually bogged down by a drab subplot involving Edward Wilson's strained relationship with his son, Edward Jr. (played by the unappealing Eddie Redmayne). It's an unfortunate decision, trying to turn a political movie into a Godfather-like family saga, where the senior Wilson is inevitably put into a situation where he must choose between family and country. (This subplot is also uncomfortably – and unbelievably – woven into the real-life Bay of Pigs invasion that is the film's central reference point.) I wish contemporary filmmakers could stop caving in to current "high art" standards that every Important Film has to be about Family. De Niro should have learned from GoodFellas that, when you're making a mob movie – and in The Good Shepherd, the CIA is unquestionably a mob – it's the mob itself that becomes the family, with the flesh-and-blood relations relegated to the background.