As "The Good Shepherd" has it, Edward Wilson (a superbly disciplined Matt Damon) is from one of those old families, you know, the ones that knew everybody, got the best jobs and knew which wine went with which course. The thrust of the film is his journey to becoming a Central Intelligence Agency player of the '60s, charged with discovering the name of a "visitor." The visitor would be the one who told the Cubans which beach the invaders would hit, so the forces could be massed there upfront. The investigation is the "now" of the movie, but it stops to wander through history, tracking what may be Edward's growth or what may be his damnation, and it is a function of director Robert De Niro's classical reticence that he lets you determine which. It's not a tub-thumping anti-CIA screed, but at the same time it's not a gung-ho patriotic extravaganza about the moral certainty of our side.
As anthropology and archaeology, the film is first-class. The emotional argument is less persuasive: It is that keeping secrets grinds a man down. As a trajectory of feelings, the movie suggests that the higher Edward goes, the less he feels. Edward's marriage to Clover (an underused Angelina Jolie) turns into a farce, though it produces a son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), who wants to be a spy like dad, but who doesn't have dad's reticence or his cryogenically frozen, vaulted heart. It is Edward Jr.'s failure as a robot that animates the thriller aspect of the story, while at the same time Edward rethinks his most puzzling case, which dominates the second half of the film.
"The Good Shepherd" is serious adult moviemaking, a truly surprising effort from De Niro, a man deeply interested in the art, craft and psychology of espionage. He seems to believe that we'd better be interested in it, because it's interested in us.
-- Stephen Hunter
Contains violence, sexuality and profanity.