It can be easy for some folks to forget that Robert De Niro, on top of being a two-time Academy Award-winning actor and everyone’s favorite Frankenstein’s monster (just me?), has also directed two films in his nearly 60-year career. The first, 1993’s A Bronx Tale, was a collaboration between him and the great Chazz Palminteri, adapting the film from Palminteri’s largely autobiographical play of the same name. A coming-of-age story of a teenage boy (Lillo Brancato Jr.) torn between the temptations of a life of crime with the local Mafia boss (Palminteri) and the hardworking values of his father (an understated De Niro), the film was a modest success at the box office that fared well with critics without setting the world on fire. It has the unassuming markings of a first-time directorial effort, including the clear signs of potential for someone who would go on to something even bigger and better.
That something would come with his second feature behind the camera—a whopping thirteen years later. Released in December of 2006, The Good Shepherd took a long journey to get to the screen, with De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth coming to the project from different ends and eventually meeting in the middle. Roth had been working on an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a fictionalized account of the Central Intelligence Agency, eventually abandoning it to write his own invented story instead. Francis Ford Coppola was originally set to direct the film in 1994, later abandoning the project because he found it too difficult to engage with the emotionless characters. After Coppola left, the film bounced through a myriad of directors, including Wayne Wang, Philip Kaufman and John Frankenheimer.
De Niro had long been interested in his own CIA film, specifically detailing the period between the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Originally set to star in The Good Shepherd when Frankenheimer was at the helm, De Niro would ultimately take on the director’s chair after Frankenheimer’s death during pre-production in 2002. While The Good Shepherd ends in that 1961 period, De Niro and Roth reached an agreement that if De Niro directed Roth’s script, then Roth would write a sequel that would go from this era to 1989, followed by a third film that would take the main character from the fall of the Wall to the present day. These sequels would never come, nor would a sequel series announced by Showtime.
It’s not difficult to see how The Good Shepherd didn’t take Hollywood by storm. Inspired more by George Smiley than Jack Ryan, De Niro’s stately approach was the mark of a director with utmost confidence in his methodical vision. If anything, the fact that this slow-burn, intensely academic and novelistic film, which keeps its emotions at so much of a distance it turned Francis Ford Coppola away, was able to pull in an $80 million budget is something of a miracle. Part of that can surely be credited to star Matt Damon, who took over the role of Edward Wilson from his Departed co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom were enticing for financial backers. 36 years old at the time of the film’s release, Damon plays Edward from ages 19 to 41, as we trace the man from his time at Yale in 1939 to his position as a senior CIA officer during the Bay of Pigs, which is where the film opens in media res.
Jumping back and forth to the ‘61 timeline, where Edward and his co-workers are investigating a mysterious tape recording he receives after the failed invasion, we discover how this mild-mannered, perpetually serious man has come to be in the position he’s in now. After being inducted into the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale, Edward is put on the fast track to the elite, rubbing shoulders with men in the highest forms of American government, eventually being inducted by General Bill Sullivan (De Niro, in a brief role) to join the OSS. Every action propels Edward further into a life of secrets—lying even to himself about his motivation, which by the end is so obfuscated it’s impossible for the audience to tell what this man believes in anymore…if he believes in anything at all.
An early scene when Edward’s first brought into Skull and Bones sees him and his fellow recruits fighting in the mud before one of the older members starts to piss on them from above. Edward, outraged by this humiliation, walks away and decides to leave the society, only to be persuaded back in by John (Gabriel Macht), who gives him some halfhearted platitudes about how they’re all “brothers” now. Edward, silent, believes what John’s selling, and heads back into the ring for more. This moment forebodes the path that Edward will take for the remainder of the film, and indeed the remainder of his life. While he is figuratively pissed on again and again by a country increasingly overrun by the corrupt elites, Edward feels some misguided sense of duty to continue on in his service, fooled by the idea of America as this bastion of nobility and good, aiming to protect the world from themselves.
For Roth, Edward is a representation of the “good men” who fall prey to, and then further facilitate, this system of elitism that has shackled this country for hundreds of years. Bound by what he has been conditioned to believe is the “right” thing to do, Edward gives in to this structural hierarchy until he can’t see himself anymore. The Good Shepherd is filled with scenes of white men in dark suits dictating the conditions under which everyone will live, slowly consuming themselves with power and the ever-evolving determination that anyone other than them is not to be trusted. The stillness, the quiet of De Niro’s direction captures the most chilling realization of all: That these anonymous men decide the life-or-death fate of America without blinking an eye, then toast themselves after.
While this examination of the corruption at the heart of America pervades the macro elements of The Good Shepherd, what ultimately makes it sear into the memory of viewers is the way it portrays Edward as a broken man who casts aside everything that could possibly save him. The film is bookended by scenes revolving around the suicide of Edward’s father (Timothy Hutton, one in a series of small but brilliant performances from tremendous actors in the film), which he essentially witnessed as a child. He was the first to find his father’s body, and discovered the note he had written before taking his life. Edward hides the note, not showing it to anyone, nor reading it himself until the very end of the film. He discovers that his father betrayed his country—hinted at in the beginning of the film when his father tells Edward to never lie, something Edward will eventually make a life out of—and he encourages Edward to live a life full of decency and truth, of love and family. If only Edward had read the note sooner, listened to his father’s warning, perhaps he could have avoided the bleak path he would eventually walk. Then again, the iron grip of the United States of America likely would have gotten hold of him no matter where he tried to hide.
It makes sense why Coppola was initially drawn to the idea of the film, as it comes ready-made for comparisons to Michael Corleone’s arc across The Godfather. Through looks into Edward’s personal life, we see glimmers of hope like Laura (Tammy Blanchard), a student at Yale he has a charming meet-cute with when her pen-tapping irritates him—until he realizes that she’s deaf and doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. The courtship between these two is a lovely, wholesome reprieve from the stern morbidity of the rest of the film. Damon hardly breaks a smile, let alone a full-faced look of joy, throughout the film, but he does when he’s sharing scenes with the radiant Blanchard, whose air of vulnerability gives the character the kind of life that allows us to understand why this woman would impact Edward forever.
Edward’s happy ending with Laura is doomed by a mistake he makes during a Skull and Bones retreat, when he sleeps with John’s sister Clover (Angelina Jolie). It’s a mistake for Clover as well, having no idea the life she’s about to become committed to once they discover that their moment of passion has resulted in a pregnancy. As is the case with Edward’s strict code of honor dominating his profession, this old-school sense of duty now invades his romantic life, resulting in him marrying Clover because it’s “the right thing” to do. Damon and Jolie marvelously play through the steps of their lustful night leading to a doomed marriage of silence and ever-increasing distance. When they first meet, Clover represents this exciting wild energy that flies in the face of the studious Skull and Bones legion. She’s the black sheep and it draws him in, just as she is compelled by the fun of unlacing this prim-and-proper young man with no idea how to cut loose.
However, as the years go on, we see through Clover how Edward will destroy everyone around him. She’s the Kay Adams of this story, except she never gets away—not even in the slightest. Before dinner commences at that Skull and Bones retreat, the men all stand up and give their thanks to the society itself before giving thanks to God. Clover slyly states “Bonesmen first, God second.” It’s a charming moment, a sign of that rebellious spirit that Edward is so enamored with. Years down the road, a later scene sees her repeat the line at another retreat. This time, rather than the fun carefree young lady saying it as a sign of mischief, we see a hollow woman resigned to the reality that she lives with something less than human—a ghost, as she calls Edward in one of the film’s few scenes of emotional unletting.
Through all these years of becoming so shrunken inside of himself that his family can’t even recognize him, Edward is always stuck on the idea of Laura. One day, he encounters a woman during his work who uses a hearing aid. Noticing Edward paying attention to the aid, the woman appears embarrassed by it, before Edward gently notes that he knew someone who used one once. An attuned Damon says the line as if Edward’s mourning someone, which in a way he is. He’s mourning himself, his own possibility of living a life full of love and happiness, the life that he let get away from him because of his sense of duty. By some act of cruel happenstance, Edward runs into Laura years later at a play. The two share a passionate night with one another, rekindling their romance and making love, Edward desperately trying to reclaim the life that he lost so long ago. Of course, this can’t last.
His impulsive tryst with Laura has been used by the unseen enemy to further turn Clover against him—his professional life consuming his personal life. These aren’t just the consequences of a night of infidelity. They’re the consequences of that fateful moment so many years ago when Edward decided to “do the right thing” by abandoning Laura in order to father a child with Clover. That was when he made his bed, and now he must lie in it. Edward could choose to go back on the cause he’s been devoted to—run back to Laura, throw caution to the wind and leave his life of deception behind. But we know he won’t do that. He’s in too deep.
The more that Edward loses any semblance of humanity—which Damon expertly captures in the stillest, most internalized performance of his career—the more he becomes a representation of America itself. Take the phenomenal one-scene performance from Joe Pesci, returning to acting after eight years for his friend De Niro to play Joseph Palmi, a man based partly on mob bosses Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante Jr. Edward arrives at Palmi’s home to threaten him with deportation unless he starts working for the feds (both men the character is based on were alleged to have been involved with the JFK assassination).
When Palmi realizes what’s going on, he says to Edward, “Let me ask you something…we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the n**, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”
Edward responds, “The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
He thinks he’s saying something profound, a loaded bullet to exert his force over Palmi, but he also thinks that he’s still the good guy. What he means when he says that he has “The United States of America” is that his people, the elite class bolstered by wealth and nepotism, have all the power in this country, and everyone else is going to bend to their whim because they decide what’s right, whether it is or not. Whether they started off trying to do the right thing or not, which Edward surely believes he did, all they care about now is power—acquiring and maintaining it, no matter the cost. Edward has become fully lost in the lies that have been fed to him his entire life.
As the flashback narrative catches up to 1961, Edward loses more and more of his soul, pushing his family further away while the ‘61 timeline reveals that Edward’s son (Eddie Redmayne) has unknowingly fallen in love with a Soviet spy, and it was he who mistakenly leaked the information about the Bay of Pigs. With this fact being used against Edward to try and turn him into a mole, he is faced with deciding between his allegiance to his country or to his family, and he goes with the family that he has always chosen: America.
After 9/11, America was united in an almost unparalleled way due to a misplaced sense of patriotism, one exploited by the men in charge—the same men in dark suits who lurk in the shadows of The Good Shepherd. By December of 2006, disillusion was sinking in for more and more people, along with the realization that this was a tale repeated often throughout this country’s history. It took Robert De Niro 13 years after his directing debut to make his sophomore feature, and while he wanted to follow it up with a Good Shepherd sequel, it’s tough to see where Edward’s story could have gone from here. Its ending encapsulates everything the man has come to represent about the cold, inhuman power structure at the heart of America: He’s lost his father, he’s lost the woman he loved and now he’s even lost his son, but Edward doesn’t look back as he leaves his old office and takes a long, slow walk down his new wing of the CIA headquarters, firmly ensconced in his position of the lie repeating.
Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.