Dir: Robert De Niro. US. 2006. 165mins.

Robert De Niro's secondfeature The Good Shepherd is afrequently absorbing, fascinating work that achieves its power through itsdeliberate sense of contradiction. Traversing 20th-century American foreignpolicy and Cold War politics, it refracts historical tensions through a singleperspective; the complex, emotionally harsh life of spymaster Edward Wilson,played with rigorous precision and eerie intensity by Matt Damon.

But The Good Shepherd marks something of a challenge for US distributorUniversal Pictures (the film opens domestically on Dec 22). Budgeted at morethan $100m, it is an expensive and ambitious period feature detailinghistorical events that have little emotional connection for contemporary filmaudiences. As such it is likely to perform in a manner not dissimilar to lastyear's Munich (worldwide: $127.8m,US: $47.4m) or Syriana(worldwide: $93.7m, US: $50.8m), both of which it echoes in scope and themewith its exploration of the human cost of political intrigue.

Internationally, the movie'scast and overseas subject matter suggest strong returns in English-languagemarkets and historically open territories such as France, Spain and Germany.

At its best, which is often,The Good Shepherd is skilfully madeand brilliantly performed and clearly a strong awards candidate for, amongothers, best picture, best screenplay, best actor, best supporting actor(especially John Turturro, William Hurt and Michael Gambon), best cinematography and best art direction.Cinematically, two other obvious touchstones are Francis Ford Coppola's firsttwo Oscar-sweeping Godfather epics:note that Coppola is an executive producer here, while De Nirowon a best supporting actor Oscar as the young Vito Corleonein The Godfather, Part II.

Structurally, The Good Shepherd is set between 1939and 1961. The story is framed by the politically disastrous Bay of Pigs inApril 1961, the CIA-backed plan to train Cuban exiles to invade the island andlaunch a coup against Fidel Castro. The operation ended in failure, raising thepossibility that a CIA mole alerted Russian intelligence to the plan.

Like Citizen Kane, The GoodShepherd then becomes a film about the search for origins. It followsEdward Wilson, a poetry aficionado, whose initiation into Skull and Bones, thesecretive male society at Yale University, draws him into a web of powerful menwho facilitate his quick rise.

He is eventually recruitedby a character patterned on Wild Bill Donovan (De Niro),the founder of CIA pre-cursor the OSS, and serves in London and Berlin duringthe Second World War.

Interestingly, the veryqualities that mark his distinction as a political operative - narrowness ofthought, discipline, rectitude - also underscore hislarger failings as a husband and father. Estranged from his wife (Jolie) and emotionally unable to connect to his son (Redmayne), Wilson has two meaningful relationships; hislove for the beautiful, fragile Laura (Blanchard); and his Soviet rival(Stefan), code-named Ulysses, whom he relentlessly charts and plans against.

Eric Roth's script isclearly based on the life of James Angleton (1917-87), the controversial,powerful director of the counterespionage division of the CIA. Despite its ColdWar context, The Good Shepherd is ameditation on family and uses the relationship of fathers and sons as a largermetaphor for American social and political institutions.

The screenplay pirouettesand circles around the preoccupations and thematic concerns of Roth's previouswork (Forrest Gump, Ali, Munich),situating its solitary protagonist against a complex political history. At thesame time the narrative repeatedly returns to a signature theme: the humandimension of such a narrow, emotionally constricted life.

The film has been a dreamproject of De Niro for some time, and the movie hasmany of the stylistic hallmarks that have defined his work as an actor; aninnate curiosity about human nature, an acute sense of detail, and a nuanced,authentic feel for verisimilitude.

But it also has severallapses, both in the repetition of sequences and a tempo that occasionally feelstoo ruminative, forestalling the action. The storytelling also becomes somewhatdiffuse in the final reel.

Matt Damon is impressive,especially in his stillness and reserve: his is not a showboating performancebut one of reflection and inward force. His director demands much of him, andDamon, much like the film, responds in persuasive and affecting manner.Angelina Jolie is a ravishing presence,although she is given little to animate the dark emotionally contours of alonely American wife.

The large, eclectic cast ismostly spectacular. Special consideration must be paid to John Turturro as Wilson's top assistant; Michael Gambon as a compromised through brilliant operative whotutors Wilson; and Tammy Blanchard as a Proustianfigure of regret and failed romantic opportunities. Joe Pescimakes his first film appearance in eight years, turning up in a very small partas a mobster that clearly references JFK.

There is also someintriguing minor casting that largely succeeds, including an American (Crudup) in a role based on Kim Philbyand an Englishman (Redmayne) in the part of Wilson'sson. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey icon Keir Dullea turns up in a small,pivotal part as a US senator.

De Niroemploys the same cinematographer, Robert Richardson, who shot JFK, another obvious title The Good Shepherd references in itshistorical recreation and thematic concern. His handsome widescreen photographyis more subdued than his feverish experimentation on Oliver Stone's film but itis nevertheless strikingly beautiful. Of note is how archival black-and-whitefootage sometimes slowly bleeds into colour to establish a foreign location.

Art direction is good, andperiod recreations of places like 1960s Washington and London during the Blitzare well integrated into the rest of the work. Musical contributions aretasteful and understated, utilising period tunes to underline the time andplace.

Production companies/backers
American Zoetrope
Morgan Creek

US distribution

International distribution

Executive producer
Francis Ford Coppola
David Robinson
Guy McElwaine
Howard Kaplan
Chris Bingham

James G Robinson
Jane Rosenthal
Robert De Niro

Eric Roth

Robert Richardson

Production design
Tariq Anwar

Marcelo Zarvos
Bruce Fowler

Main cast
Matt Damon
Angelina Jolie
Alec Baldwin
Tammy Blanchard
Billy Crudup
Robert De Niro
Keir Dullea
Michael Gambon
Martina Gedeck
William Hurt
Timothy Hutton
Joe Pesci
John Sessions
John Turturro