Opens Friday December 22 THE GOOD SHEPHERD directed by Robert De Niro, written by Eric Roth, with Matt Damon, John Turturro, Angelina Jolie and William Hurt. 160 minutes. A Universal release. For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Matt Damon can do the movie star thing - the outgoing action hero in the Bourne films, the smartest guy in the room in Rounders and Good Will Hunting - but he's more interesting as an actor when he recedes from view.
In pictures like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ocean's Eleven, he has the air of someone trying to disappear into the wallpaper of his own movies.
In The Good Shepherd, Damon plays a bright Yale student recruited into the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, on the eve of the second world war. He gradually rises to become one of the architects of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro's Cuba. Director Robert De Niro has structured the film as a series of flashbacks, beginning with the failure of that operation.
Damon is ideally cast as a grey company man. The problem here, aside from the fact that at 160 minutes it's really, really long, is that the whole film is pitched to the tone of his performance. He's a grey shadow working in the margins of a grey shadow world full of hushed, secretive people.
It's a picture in which everyone except Angelina Jolie is trying to go unnoticed: Alec Baldwin as a tenacious FBI man, Billy Crudup as an English spy, William Hurt as the CIA director. For that matter, Jolie is a piece of spectacular overcasting for a small role. Her job is to complain about not knowing what her husband does.
It's not a horrible film. De Niro's a smart actor's director, and the performances are intriguing, but they're all recessive performances and small moments. Perhaps we've been spoiled by decades of Bond movies, Tom Clancy thrillers and Robert Ludlum's paranoid fantasies. But if there's a director we want giving us the history of the CIA, it's Oliver Stone in his JFK, not his World Trade Center mode.
De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich, Ali) give us the Eric Rohmer vision of the CIA. It's not an impossible aesthetic stance. John Le Carré did wonders with it in the cold grey world of the George Smiley novels, and the TV miniseries backed Alec Guinness's Smiley with a pack of eccentric character actors. Those shows played small, but the characters held us rather than repelling us.