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Friday, December 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Good Shepherd": A life cloaked in secrecy

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Good Shepherd," with Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Eddie Redmayne. Directed by De Niro, from a screenplay by Eric Roth. 170 minutes. Rated R for some violence, sexuality and language. Several theaters.

Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd," a spy thriller entangled in a relationship drama, is cloaked in darkness; nearly every scene, even those in the daytime, takes place in shadows. That's appropriate, because this is a story of secrets and masks.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), fresh from Yale and the secret Skull and Bones society, is recruited to join the government's Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) during World War II. The film, swinging from past to present like a relentless pendulum, covers the next two decades, in which Wilson tries to balance the complexities of his job (he eventually becomes a founder of the CIA, entangled in the Cold War and the KGB) with a real life.

It's a long (nearly three hours), deliberately paced film, and an intelligent one. And it's an overdue welcome-back to De Niro. His last directing credit was "A Bronx Tale" in 1993; as an actor, he's lately been stuck in a rut of iffy comedies ("Meet the Fockers," "Analyze That") and threadbare thrillers ("Godsend," "Hide and Seek"). Here, he dives into some challenging material: Eric Roth's original screenplay, which mixes fictional characters and some true historical events, juggles multiple stories and shifting timelines, and an army of strong actors pop on and off.

The result is a thoughtful and often artful saga of a man who keeps secrets even from himself, and who lives to see his only son (played, as an adult, by Eddie Redmayne) repeat the mistakes of his own life. Damon, borrowing a bit from his elusive shape-shifter Tom Ripley in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," plays Wilson as a blank slate, a polite yet remote man who answers requests with "Would you like me to?," as if his own preference doesn't count. Early on, we see some spark in him (he does an impressive, trilling Buttercup in "H.M.S. Pinafore" at Yale), but soon he becomes a man without nuance, draped in anonymous suits, carefully concealing any individuality or color. "I live with a ghost," says his wife, Margaret (Angelina Jolie), in despair.

It's tricky for a three-hour film to center around a man who never cracks a smile, and De Niro wisely surrounds Damon with vividness (including his own canny turn as General Sullivan, who helped create the OSS). Jolie, once again looking so beautiful she seems not quite human, has a naughty smile in her early scenes; she's intrigued by this mysterious young man. Later, the smile fades and a mournful quality creeps into her doe eyes. Alec Baldwin, an FBI agent who recruits young Wilson, crackles with conviction when he asks the Yale student to spy on a teacher. "I'm asking you to be a good citizen," he says, and he believes every word. Michael Gambon, as the professor, later learns of his student's profession. "Get out," he says, his voice an urgent rumble, "while you still have a soul."

"The Good Shepherd" ultimately emerges as a character study, in which we come to know Wilson not by what he does, but by what he doesn't do. In the end, he turns and walks away from the camera, his anonymously beige raincoat swathing his slumped shoulders. He's invisible, and perhaps that's what he wanted all along.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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