"Cold is as cold does."
"There were enemies without to destroy him,
And spies and self-seekers within . . . ." Eliot, The Rock
The cold war fed the imaginations of many worthy novelists such as Graham Greene and John le Carre, leaving us with the impression of spies who gave up most of their personal life in clandestine service to country. In Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), working on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, flashes back to 1939, when as a child he witnessed his father's suicide and began a life of emotional withdrawal, a valuable attitude for his role in the emerging CIA but an inevitable loss to his emotional life, especially with family.
Director De Niro knows quite a bit about intrigue given the dark figures he has played as one of America's leading actors. His lighting is consistently low key, as if a secret world lies behind every tenebrous shot. His frame is frequently static and spare, as if the void will be filled by inexplicable pain. He knows atmosphere and he knows lonely, isolated characters, as if Travis Bickle were being channeled into Edward Wilson.
Maybe too isolated. Damon plays Wilson so minimalist that knowing the interior of his character is impossible. He is as stoic as Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction but without any humor. Ferrell failed to move me, and similarly Damon makes me feel cheated about being able to identify in some way with Wilson. But then, cold is as cold does. As for Angelina Jolie's Margaret, Wilson's wife, she is supposed to remain an enigma because her husband has marginalized her in his life so we have no chance to hear her lonely heart.
De Niro captures the nether world of espionage, beginning with Wilson's induction into the Skull and Bones Society at Yale (W is an alumnus, not the best endorsement for the group's integrity), infamous for its secrecy and nurturer of national leaders, and ending with the Bay of Pigs loss and the challenge to his family unity.
The Good Shepherd is a coldly satisfying holiday experience despite the almost three hours of its hero's dark loneliness.