The Good Shepherd is the second movie of this Oscar season that’s wary of cock. The first was Blood Diamond, which had a nude Djimon Hounsou screaming inside a cage, his jewels conspicuously hidden behind calculated shadows. Hounsou’s noble savage naturally frightened the National Board of Review, which awarded him their Best Supporting Actor prize in early December. (One wonders: Could the full monty have guaranteed him Forrest Whitaker’s Best Actor award?) Now in The Good Shepherd we have Matt Damon, at a Skull and Bones ceremony at Yale, propped naked inside a coffin of some kind, his manhood either obliterated through CGI or tucked between his legs. Later, John Turturro’s sick inquisitor will obscure a poor Russian man’s privates with his head, another laughable example of The Good Shepherd motioning its laughable sense of prestige.
Ostensibly the untold story of the birth of the C.I.A., Robert De Niro’s film is really the most mundane psychological profile of the year. Because Damon’s Edward Wilson, loosely based on James Jesus Angleton, was a witness to his father’s suicide, he becomes a closet-case of emotions, and as such a perfect tool for the U.S. government’s covert operations during WWII and the Cold War. He studies poetry at Yale but is recruited one day to spy on one of his professors, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), who may be cultivating a Nazi sleeper cell on campus. Intimidation comes in all shapes and sizes—most absurdly, a scene in which Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) lets the air out of Edward’s bicycle tires. In Europe, Edward masters the covert language of his trade, shares homoerotic banter with his colleagues, has staring contests with others, and sleeps with a deaf woman who reminds him of the young lady he gave up for Clover Wilson (Angelina Jolie).
For an inexcusable 160 minutes, The Good Shepherd jumps back and forth in time but is not so clever to ever double back on itself in a remotely ecstatic way like Oliver Stone’s JFK. This is featherweight entertainment, sans visual elation and moral consequence—like Munich for Beginners. Meshed in the film’s I-spy fold is Edward’s hunt for a mysterious double-agent who goes by the name Ulysess (after the Joyce novel) and dissections of a grainy, black-and-white sex tape that threaten to expose the person behind the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The answers to all the film’s insignificant mysteries are the stuff of a Danielle Steele novel. No actor survives this mess except perhaps for Jolie, who enters the film like a tigress, trying to resist the way the story conspires to reduce her to a grieving-housewife cliché. Hers is a shrill turn for sure, but her fierce struggle stands out. This should not come as a surprise to anyone; after all, she has bigger balls than any actor in Hollywood.