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His life in espionage

'Shepherd' tells the CIA's story. But is that entertainment?

Matt Damon is intelligently observational as a spy during the Cold War. (ANDREW SCHWARTZ/UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

For his second directing assignment, Robert De Niro has taken on the unenviable task of dramatizing the story of the CIA. It's a big, unwieldy thing whose recorded histories already number in the dozens. "The Good Shepherd" focuses on the agency's start as the tiny Office of Strategic Services and its evolution into a Cold War-era outfit maneuvering against the KGB. We're shown how a government group's patriotic aim to keep America safe had gone dangerously to its head by the time of the Kennedy administration.

Ambitious and timely as it is, this look at the politics of national security is always at odds with the obligation to entertain. Lest it fail to be taken seriously, De Niro tries to keep "The Good Shepherd" from moving as swiftly as an airport page-turner. The result is a movie that lumbers between its domestic and international intrigues.

Screenwriter Eric Roth , who's logged many hours in the 20th-century history department ("Forrest Gump," "Munich"), has winnowed the CIA's evolution down to one fictional man. His name is Edward Wilson, and Matt Damon stares through the character's horn-rimmed glasses with a mortician's solemnity. But De Niro tries to inject levity and a thrill where he can, kicking off the picture with a bang of sorts: grainy footage of what looks like two bodies writhing in passion. Who are they? Why are we watching them?

To solve that mystery (it has something to do with the Bay of Pigs invasion), the film moves backward every now and then to tell Wilson's story. In the early going, he's shown peering through blinds like Norman Bates in "Psycho" (Damon's entire performance is intelligently observational). Then, to show us that he wasn't always so dour, it's back to 1939, where Wilson is camping it up in drag for a Yale undergraduate production of "H.M.S. Pinafore."

Wilson is a sensitive English major whisked from intimate poetry seminars to induction into Skull and Bones, the university's most elite secret society, which for years flourished as a brotherhood for the rich white men groomed to become the country's future leaders. Among other hazing rituals, Wilson mud wrestles and shares a traumatic boyhood confession about his late father.

At Yale, an F B I operative, played with fine average-Joe crustiness by Alec Baldwin, recruits Wilson for a covert assignment. He's to spy on his beloved poetry professor (Michael Gambon ), who might be recruiting for a Nazi front. The job is presented as a patriot's duty, and Wilson's reluctance to carry through is reversed by an unseemly and preposterously convenient act of impropriety.

In any case, Wilson trades his promise as a man of letters for a life of conspiracy, quickly climbing the ranks of the CIA, a far more insidious secret society, many of whose masters are blue-blooded Bonesmen, including William Hurt as the agency's director. De Niro shows up as Bill Sullivan, the wheelchaired Army general who helped shape American intelligence.

The movie goes out of its way to show Wilson as simultaneously flawed and exemplary. He marries Clover, a Bonesman senator's daughter (Angelina Jolie), only because he got her pregnant, and he did that only because his sweet, hearing-impaired girlfriend (Tammy Blanchard ) was too virtuous to have sex with him.

Thanks to an assignment from his higher-ups, he spends six years apart from the wife he barely knows. He's plopped in Europe near the start of World War II, where he gets an education in espionage from a sleek British spy, played by Billy Crudup .

Those on-the-job tutorials are useful for Wilson's most pressing adversary, his KGB counterpart (Oleg Stefan ), whose nickname is "Ulysses." The Russian, in turn, calls Wilson "Mother," and there's a wonderful insinuating tinge of affection when he does.

The American's attempts to outsmart him turns the movie into a suspenseful sort of intellectual chase picture. Indeed, "The Good Shepherd" is chock full of everything -- assassinations, betrayal, comeuppance, marital discord, the rise of Castro, an intense torture sequence, defenestration, John Turturro as a sociopath agent, De Niro "Strangelove"-ing it up in that wheelchair, the brief return of Joe Pesci as an informant, and a manmade plague of locusts.

But that also leaves it a 2 1/2-hour farrago: a character study, a soap opera, a psychological profile, and a docudrama full of Roth's obvious affinity for cool spy jargon ("The doctor has no more patients," says Hurt to Damon about a CIA-backed coup in Cuba).

"The Good Shepherd" is based vaguely on the life of the former long-serving CIA chief James Angleton . Needless to say, Angleton cut a more complexly paranoid figure in "Cold Warrior, " Thomas Mangold's biography, and a loonier one in William F. Buckley Jr.'s inane but readable fictional account, "Spytime. " The movie uses Angleton's legacy to a strictly cautionary end.

De Niro seems to enjoy himself only in the last stages of the picture when the flashbacks finally -- finally -- catch up to the present and the Wilson family's trashy domestic drama, which includes a plot twist between Wilson and the adult son desperate for his father's love. The dam breaks on the film's rank urges, and, dramatically, the film is better for it.

Still "The Good Shepherd" leaves you longing for the other, better political thrillers it evokes. You crave the speculative audacity of "JFK," the grim existential chill of "The Third Man," or the darkening psychosexual contours of "The Conformist," a film with which it has a lot in common. "The Good Shepherd" is also a portrait of a man shaped by, and shaping, a dangerous political age. But De Niro's movie doesn't know what to make of its title character. Wilson drifts through the highlights of the Cold War impervious to his lethal machinations. This is a deadly, dirty job he has, and it's a mystery as to whether he's pleased to do it.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to

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