James Bond movies have given viewers eight different actors playing Felix Leiter, Bond's American colleague in the CIA. Apart from Jeffrey Wright in the new Casino Royale (and then only briefly), none of them make much of an impression. That's mostly because Leiter is rarely given much to do apart from bumping the story forward. But there's something appropriate about it as well. Where Bond embodies all the classic, larger-than-life characteristics of espionage, Leiter drifts around in the background, a hard-to-notice man with more knowledge and power than the hard-to-notice men around him.
A truer product of the Cold War than Bond himself, Leiter would fit right in at the CIA of The Good Shepherd, a fictionalized history of the agency directed by Robert De Niro from a long-circulated script by Eric Roth. Beneath a square haircut and behind even squarer glasses, Matt Damon serves as the focal point, playing a character whose path from Ivy League poetry enthusiast to behind-the-scenes spymaster mirrors that of James Jesus Angleton, the "Gray Ghost Of Langley," whose shadowy presence has inspired everyone from Norman Mailer to half the conspiracy theorists on the Internet. Never an ebullient fellow, Damon withdraws deeper into himself as the journey from Blitz-era London to the Bay Of Pigs teaches him that soul-rending paranoia isn't just an occupational hazard, it's a job requirement.
This is as big as stories about post-war America get, and De Niro, who gives himself a small role, begins the film with remarkable assurance, portraying Damon's immersion into spycraft as a result of duty and coercion. But the story gets away from him too quickly, as the story tangles and the propulsive style of The Good Shepherd's early scenes quickly grows sluggish. Big scenes—like a Soviet agent's LSD-assisted revelation of what he believes to be the Cold War's greatest secret—have little impact, while what ought to be big twists arrive with a resounding "duh." Damon is solid as usual, but as the film rolls into hour three, his inscrutability starts to feel less like a personality trait than an unwillingness to develop the character. (It only reinforces this problem when Damon and an underused Angelina Jolie, playing his wife, appear not to age over the onscreen decades.) De Niro made the right choice in making this a film of cold, gray Leiters rather than dynamic Bonds. But he never makes us feel the chill.