The Good Shepherd is an exceptionally well-constructed, written and acted film that ultimately holds more allure in the parts of its story it chooses not to tell rather than those that it does. So while enjoyable, it is hard to advocate for a film that is more about what isn’t there than what is.
The Good Shepherd focuses on the founding of the CIA and the nature and costs of life as a spy. It is these small details that are exceptional. But if The Good Shepherd gives us the logistical realities of being a spy (how messages are passed, what friendships do and don’t mean), somehow every time it gets close to really looking at the emotional cost of it, the film seemingly averts its eyes whether from a crumbling marriage or the nuances of friendships between men. Why this happens, it’s hard to guess at – perhaps there was already too much packed into the film (it’s incredibly dense such that those sur-titles that tell you when and where you are, are very necessary and you need to remember them from scene to scene, which is somewhat aggravating), or perhaps going further with the personal costs of spying would make all the characters too unsympathetic. Another possibility is that the realities of the eroticism either inherent in or popularly projected onto espionage are just too uncomfortable for a mainstream film – I have no idea, but The Good Shepherd left me wondering about all these things.
The only interpersonal relationship that the film really tries to give a complete focus to is between father and son, but this is done with such a heavy hand, it almost feels like that part of the magic trick where you’re being asked to look at one thing so you don’t see something else. Considering all the relationships in this film are deceitful, I wonder why this layer of dishonesty is added between the art and its audience.
The Good Shepherd is at its best in the sequences in the 1930s – Yale as what will become WWII begins, and a man becomes a spy, almost quite by accident. The infamous secret society, Skull & Bones, plays a huge role in this part of the film in particular, and here the cinematography and use of music can’t help but make the viewer long for a world of privilege about which they can only speculate, and which probably never existed as they or the film imagined. So rich with color and intrigue and the edge of people learning what power is and how to use it, I would have gladly watched a three hour film about this time and place. Alas, though, we move forward through the 1940s and back and forth from 1961’s Bay of Pigs invasion.
If you want a good, serious movie to engage your brain during the winter season, The Good Shepherd is certainly worth seeing. However, don’t expect to learn much about the human condition or yourself in the process and realize you may be left doing the work when it comes to imagining the story the film seduced you into desiring but on which it ultimately didn’t deliver.
The Good Shepherd opens December 22nd.