The Good Shepherd

Year: 2007
Studio: Universal
Director: Robert De Niro
Producer: Robert De Niro
Writer: Eric Roth
Cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Robert De Niro, Michael Gambon
Some movies are must see regardless of their content. Movies like JFK, Apocalypse Now and Flags of Our Fathers demand attention simply because of the ensemble of talent, often on both sides of the camera. Sure, Michael Mann's Heat was a cops vs robbers thriller - there'd been a million of them - but how could anyone not be excited about De Niro and Pacino sharing the screen for the first time?

Of the must-see films of the new century, The Good Shepherd has an incredibly powerful draw. Just try keeping movie freaks away from a film directed by the actor frequently named among the top three in history - only the second in his career after 1993's A Bronx Tale.

De Niro admitted September 11 fast tracked the movie he'd been trying to make since 1996. With large scale and high profile failures of the US intelligence apparatus a lot easier to spot than Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Hollywood was quick to lead the charge of criticism thanks to mavericks like George Clooney and, in this case, De Niro himself.

And he's not the only must-see element. While star Matt Damon has more than proved his thesping chops in a stellar career, he could easily phone in his performance and rest on his laurels supported by the likes of Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin and Angelina Jolie - who' such tabloid fodder nowadays it's easy to forget what a good actress she can be.

Damon is Skull and Bones Society initiate Edward Wilson (look that up on the web for an afternoon's conspiracy theory reading). When World War II looms, he finds himself on the inner circle of men who'll form the backbone of America's espionage and surveillance for the next half century with the formation of the OSS, precursor to the CIA.

De Niro's saying as much about the kind of man you have to be to survive in the clandestine world of the early Cold War as he is about the institution that swallows up such men and their blind devotion to a cause that wavers with the political winds. Wilson increasingly distances himself from his beautiful wife (Jolie) and son, the only way he can carry on the work that will lead to the ill-conceived Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba over two decades later.

Every detail of De Niro's direction is in place to the extent where you can see a massive, Titanic -scale research project behind the period, settings and costuming. And while you'd expect the Film of the Century from the eye of Actor of the Century, De Niro can't help but remind you he's an actor. Much more comfortable with the emotional tussles between characters than he is with any wide shots of action or exposition, You'll recognise some of A Bronx Tale's hokiness if you've seen it.

You can also see large nods to pal and longtime collaborator Scorsese. If there's something familiar about the code of silence and seedy, privileged backroom operation of The Good Shepherd, you could almost replace the CIA with the Mafia, change some of the names to sound more Italian and barely notice a difference.

The structure is a little too ambitious to be as intriguing as it could have been, but De Niro's message is intact. It's a warning to Americans about the sort of people their security rests with, and no small amount to the male gender about the perils of devoting yourself to work at the expense of your nearest and dearest. Aims a little higher than it can reach at times, but still must see.

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