For the patient, a rewarding ride
8 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I can't vouch for how much truth can be found in "The Good Shepherd." After all, how much can you really know about an organization that deals in lies? But I do know that Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the perfect, duty-bound man of privilege -- born in the north east, bred in the Ivy League, lured into a secret society of cocky heirs to American industry, and made into a man feared by others only because he, himself, feared his superiors.

And even though Edward never truly existed, he managed to turn a cloak-and-dagger fraternity into a megalomaniacal arm of the government. And while the CIA was never intended to become the "heart and soul" of America, Edward helps to make it just that... while losing his own soul in the process. But the greatest irony of them all, is that Edward never wanted any of it. Like the heir to a dynasty, Edward was chosen from among the young elite, molded and coerced his entire life, as if the great machinary of America's powerful few knew he would be the perfect cog. And he was.

This is what "The Good Shepherd" does best. It creates an intriguing, tragic story worth telling, with no small help from the legacy of "The Godfather" series. Director Rober DeNiro channels Francs Ford Coppolla right down to the operatic, dual-story ending. The grave tone and slow escalation of this thriller may seem like a slow burn, but it's ultimately worth the fire, even if it does leave you craving a bit of Hitchcockian suspense (a couple of punch-ups from the oft-maligned Brian DePalma couldn't have hurt). But the subtle, dead-on acting from Damon will ground you. In the end, Edward is confronted by the responsibilities of duty and loyalty to family. And it's wonderful to see Damon take two "Godfather"'s worth of psychological burden and prove that he has the talent and strength to shoulder it.

On the other hand, the film suffers from a few bouts of contrived and melodramatic dialogue (mostly heaped upon the film's two, underwritten, female leads and on DeNiro's mugging cameo). And it's easy to get lost in the second act, during several mysteries about Russian spies and the Bay of Pigs invasion. With some sharper editing, the story could have been tighter and more focused early on. The more we drift away from Damon's central character, the more the story wanders. As it is, much of the story's intensity falls on the film's final act. But what an act it is.

The final twenty minutes comprise "The Good Shepherd"'s emotional and thematic backbone. For some audience members, it might come a little too late... after two hours of serpentine plotting, deliberate pacing and extensive backstory. But, for patient viewers, the slow burn will be worth it.
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