Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd” is probably one of the most polished, clean and sterile period productions ever made. The Oscar-winning actor’s second (and less successful) attempt at directing – his first was the coming-of-age fable “A Bronx Tale” – the film is disastrously overlong, thin on action, empty of emotion and downright devoid of any sense of purpose.

Sarah Royce
“Do you like this dress?” “Ask me after another martini – or four.” (Courtesy of Universal)

Despite its obvious potential, it’s hard not to think “the untold story of the birth of the CIA” was best left buried.

The film is among the handful of productions this year to cast top-notch actors across the board, yet achieve almost nothing (“All the King’s Men” comes to mind). It stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a young man whose life was given to the creation of the organization we know as the Central Intelligence Agency. A strapping young Skull and Bonesman fresh out of Yale, Wilson leaves his pregnant wife (Angelina Jolie) behind him in America to serve the nation’s covert interests in wartime Berlin.

He returns home after the war, but is immediately recruited by General Bill Sullivan (De Niro) to the nascent CIA.

As he is enveloped by wary seclusion and a constant compulsion for secrecy, the young man’s destruction begins. His life never again exists outside of the cold hallways of Langley (which don’t literally exist until the end of the film), and he becomes just another soul sacrificed in the impalpable name of national interests.

In its pacing, mood and expectations of the audience, the film is really not unlike De Niro as an actor – detached, unapproachable and always a step ahead (you know, “you talkin’ to me?”). It wants to show us how a life of undercover government service takes a toll on an individual soul, to make us feel the desperation and emptiness that inevitably comes with constant paranoia when voices approach. But even to portray these things, we need to see character and humanity, if for no other reason than to just show what is lost. “The Good Shepherd” offers no such outs.

Damon’s character is completely removed from humanity, and thus he’s impossible to feel for. He’s stone-faced and blank, and even though he struggles inside, emotion is something we’re trained to never associate with him. In a film that makes the breaking of a man under an overbearing system its main theme, that hardly seems the way to go.

In its 2-hour-40-minute runtime, the film meanders back and forth between approximately three different time periods – Wilson’s days at Yale, his time in Berlin and Washington in the 1940s and finally the lead up to and aftermath of the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s.

The transitions get to be confusing, not because distinctions aren’t made, but because the audience simply becomes too numb to make any type of effort to sort the story out. Indeed, even after Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup and Michael Gambon have their say and the plight of Edward Wilson is completely told, it’s still hard to take anything away from the film.

“Shepherd” has the air of something big and seems to forever teeter on the brink of revelation, but never gets to the point. There isn’t a solid beginning or end here, just bits and pieces that are well shot, yet rarely imbued with any immediacy.

De Niro has been hinting heavily that he’d like to make a sequel to the film and finish the story, but this really isn’t a beginning worth following to the end.

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