Nobody could have seen "The Good Shepherd" coming. I don't care how savvy you think you are about American movies, you never imagined that such a dark, muffled inside portrait of the Dark Heart of American privilege would come from the man who played such a famous gallery of brutes and toughs including Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull."
But then "The Good Shepherd" answers one of the more vexing questions about movies of the past five years. Which was: Why on earth is Robert DeNiro taking parts in so many bad films?
Well, the very existence of "The Good Shepherd" tells us. Not only was he piling up the industrial goodwill needed to keep his Tribeca Film Festival going, he was also amassing the goodwill he'd need to direct a movie as quietly daring as this one, about the very founding of the CIA by America's privileged class.
Some quick, hard jabbing truths here, the way a raging Jake La Motta would like:
1. "The Good Shepherd" is nearly three hours long and not exactly allegro-tempoed, either. At the screening I attended, there were a few groans and walk-outs at the length and tempo, particularly from those older people who -- paradoxically -- prefer punchier movies in much broader strokes to keep their attentions aroused.
2. It is a slow and studied movie about the shadows and low voices of a world of secrets. The only person who raises a voice in the entire movie is Angelina Jolie, as spymaster Matt Damon's wife. She briefly and drunkenly explodes at a party just after being presented with photos of her husband cheating.
The only person who even uses a profanity in this WASP world of wealth, privilege and paranoia is DeNiro himself, playing the raffish small part of the fictional "General Bill Sullivan" clearly modeled on (ex-Buffalonian) "Wild Bill" Donovan, the man often credited with pulling the wartime O.S.S. together and the Cold War CIA that followed. (He's the man, by the way, for whom the Donovan office building was named.)
Robert Richardson's cinematography is a magnificent succession of pin spots in total darkness. The very look and sound of the movie itself is telling you this is a movie about lies and secrets and shadows and furtive people doing very dark things in very dark places and preferring it that way.
By all means, see it, as long as you understand what you're getting into. It's one of the surprisingly large number of unexpected films of 2006; just know that you're going to be in a sinister, muffled shadow world for almost three hours.
If you're looking, for instance, for a Christmas movie, know that in this one, when you very briefly see Santa Claus at an upper-crust Virginia party, it's only because the very troubled and anxious young son of the hero is going to pee all over Santa's red suit when he sits on Santa's lap.
None of which changes the obvious: This is one of the season's better surprises, though I find it hard to imagine it challenging "Dreamgirls" or "Rocky Balboa" or "A Night at the Museum" for box office and popcorn sales.
It's a complex film credited to one of professional Hollywood's best screenwriters -- Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") and also involved was writer/director Phil Kaufman ("Quills," "The Right Stuff"). It's about a highly fictionalized version of real American spymaster James Jesus Angleton. In other words, it's about the clean and quiet son of American WASP privilege (a beautifully cast Matt Damon) who goes to Yale, joins Skull and Bones (the not-that-secret society that disgorged both 2004 presidential candidates), dresses in drag in numbers from Gilbert and Sullivan and then submerges his entire life in the drab, dark, colorless, emotionless, ruthless secrecy necessary to be one of the founding pillars of the CIA.
This counterintelligence master is an admiral's son. His first big secret was to tell no one -- until his Skull and Bones initiation -- that his father committed suicide when he was a young boy. And that just before he did, he gave him the advice every older man he knows seems to give him throughout his life: Trust no one.
When he's recruited right out of Yale for the soon-to-be-strengthened OSS, he's told by Sullivan/Donovan that his new organization will have "no Jews, negroes and very few Catholics. That's because I'm a Catholic."
Just -- oh, you know, true blue red-blooded "Americans," the ones with white complexions and no vowels at the end of their names. His own comment, years later, about ethnic Americans of any sort, will chill you to the bone. This IS a Robert DeNiro movie after all -- and one with two Jewish screenwriters at that.
He is such a founder of CIA counterintellegence and such a virtuoso at extinguishing all emotion and hints of self that, in later years, the KGB's hierarchy refer to him as "Mother." They whisper, among themselves, that he's "made of stone."
He's known to prefer silence above most things. His deepest and tenderest romantic relationship is with a woman who is deaf. He only marries his wife because she's a Washington grandee's daughter who thought it might be a good idea at a party to seduce him in the grass. (It wasn't. Their son was conceived that night.)
These performances are immensely subtle -- Damon, almost always blank-faced and tending toward anonymity, Angelina Jolie trying vainly to gain a toehold on life with a "ghost," William Hurt as a superior whose heartiness and cheer has its limits. The little-known supporting cast is exceptional, but then if a high-power actor/director doesn't know where the actors are, no one does.
For those who desperately want to know why DeNiro, in only his second film as director, chose this film to devote years to making, I think the answer is readily apparent when you think about it.
Tribeca, his beloved home turf, is very close to where the former World Trade Center used to be.
This then, among many other things, might be the answer to one query we'd all have.
To wit, how was our intelligence community so arrogant and tone-deaf that it missed 9/1 1?
One answer is this movie, "The Good Shepherd."
The Good Shepherd
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, John Turturro and Robert DeNiro in DeNiro's long, studied portrait of the founding years of the CIA. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.