The Good Shepherd looks great, with its coded messages, secret societies, Soviet spies, double agents, assassination plots and guarded gazes under the snappy brims of fedoras.
Say the secret words - "I want to see a man about a hat" - and you're issued into the next room.
Even if you're a sucker for that spy vs. spy stuff, though, The Good Shepherd might test your patience.
Telling the story of the founding of the CIA through the blank eyes of a spy who's more a cipher than a man, it's an ambitious, extremely long and almost inert drama from Robert De Niro, who directs and co-stars.
The movie doesn't have much in the way of juicy action scenes, instead taking the admirable route of concentrating on the whispered shenanigans behind that kind of thing. It has to live and die on the shoulders of its leading man, which is where it gets into trouble.
Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a poetry student at Yale in 1939 who's recruited to spy, first on a professor, then on the Nazis and the Soviets.
Mr. Damon did fine work in The Departed, but he's all wrong here. Some of that's not his fault. For most of the movie, he's too young, and no one seems interested in aging him a day as we go from 1939 to 1961; the only things that change are his eyeglasses. Combine youthful looks with that snub nose, and it's all wrong.
Someone's going to put this guy in charge of hundreds of spooks at the CIA? I think not.
As though to compensate, Mr. De Niro has him dressed up in a raincoat and fedora, a briefcase in his hand, with shoulders slumped and eyes downcast. He works behind a door marked "Not An Exit." He's like a certified public accountant on his most boring day ever.
"I'm a trade adviser," he says. "Civil servant."
We get the idea: He's supposed to look like a zero. He acts like one too, even at the most crisis-ridden points in his life.
That's not necessarily a problem, but the movie's unable to suggest any interior life brewing under that Dilbert-like exterior. And it offers none but the most facile reasons for that lack of humanity.
Surely a heart beats even under the nondescript white shirts of even the most repressed spy, doesn't it? The Good Shepherd doesn't convince us of that.
Angelina Jolie is underused as his wife, while William Hurt, Michael Gambon, John Turturro, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin and Joe Pesci get scenes too brief to make much of an impact. Only Mr. Turturro, as a practical-minded hard case who quickly embraces the rougher aspects of this spy trade, gives life to these musty figures from recent history.
'THE GOOD SHEPHERD'
THE VERDICT: ** out of ****
WHO'S IT FOR? Espionage addicts
CREDITS: Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Billy Crudup and John Turturro; directed by Mr. De Niro
RUNNING TIME: Two hours, 47 minutes
FAMILY GUIDE: R. Violence, a scene of state-sponsored torture, sexual situations
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