At a little under three hours, The Good Shepherd isn't exactly the perfect film to watch in a movie theater. Aside from its running time, the pace is somewhat slow, the characters often whisper to one another, the timeline jumps back and forth -- between the late 1940's and the early 1960's -- on several occasions, and most of the dialogue consists of CIA code-speak. That said, it's definitely a fun film to figure out. And, now that it's available on DVD, folks can settle down in the comfort of their own living rooms, and pause or rewind as needed. Trust me, if you miss even the tiniest line of dialogue, there's a good chance you'll need to go back. And then back again. Yup, this one's a thinker.
Essentially, the film is a character study -- it spans twenty years in the life of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), one of the first members of a newly-formed Central Intelligence Agency (or CIA). When we begin, it's 1961 and Edward is one of the key players involved in a little plan to rid Cuba of Fidel Castro (later referred to as the Bay of Pigs invasion) -- a plan that would ultimately backfire on Edward due to a mysterious intelligence leak. When a photograph winds up underneath Edward's door, along with a taped conversation that may or may not reveal who was behind the leak, Edward and his team pick apart both picture and tape piece by piece until, eventually, it reveals a truth no one (including the audience) was ready for.
From there, we jump back twenty years and the film begins to show us Edward's rise through the ranks. From his time at Yale (where he's inducted into the ultra-secretive Scull & Bones society) to his first meeting with Gen. Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), the man who would eventually introduce him to the CIA. Tossed in between are the trials and tribulations of Edward's love life. He initially falls in love with a deaf woman, but must ditch her to marry the daughter of a Senator (Angelina Jolie) when he accidentally knocks her up. The problem with Edward, however, is that he's a very cold man -- the kind of guy who waits for his son to hug him, and still looks uncomfortable showing even the littlest bit of emotion. He spends his entire life trying to track down the enemy, be it foreign or homegrown. Thus, he trusts no one -- not his co-workers, not his friends and, unfortunately, not even his family.
A quote on the back of the DVD box calls The Good Shepherd "The 'Godfather' of CIA Movies." Sure, it's got a great cast and boasts a three-hour running time, but there's very little action, very little intensity and the performances, while good, are not memorable. The folks who sat around my living room and watched it could not get over the fact that Matt Damon does not age ... at all. We're looking at twenty hard-fought years that pass by, and not once does it look like the man is over the age of 30. Since the film's timeline is all over the place, it's essential that we're given these types of visual clues, as well as notations on the bottom of the screen. De Niro, returning to the director's chair for the first time since A Bronx Tale (though he is an uncredited director on 2001's The Score), creates a very claustrophobic tone throughout -- one that certainly fits well with the story. These are men who spend the majority of their time locked in rooms or standing in shadows, with only their love for their country keeping them alive. And, quite frequently, even that love is questioned.
As far as extras go, The Good Shepherd provides only seven deleted scenes. That's it. It's unfortunate, because with a film that relies so heavily on the little details, it would have been nice to get at least one commentary from De Niro. Nevermind the all-star cast, The Good Shepherd takes place during a very intriguing time in U.S. History. I wanted to hear about the research that went into certain scenes; I wanted reasons behind casting decisions, stories from the set and, heck -- I just wanted to hear De Niro talk about filmmaking for three hours. Still, the deleted scenes are pretty interesting to watch. It appears there was an entire subplot that was cut out; one that revolved around Edward's brother-in-law and whether or not he'd gone to "the dark side." Apart from an even longer running time, I can see why they decided to cut it out -- however, it totally changes the scope of the story and really helps to beef up the part played by Angelina Jolie, who felt mis-cast, but only because her role wasn't very well-written.
Before you decide to pick up The Good Shepherd on DVD, keep in mind it's just under three hours and, although it features folks like Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro, it's slow-moving and requires its audience to pay close attention and use their brains. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40: 1), and a fullscreen version is available separately. With the audio, I needed to constantly adjust the volume because the characters whisper constantly. Here, you're looking at Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround English, French. The Good Shepherd arrives in stores today, and is rated R for violence, sexuality and language.