I don't exactly feel sorry for Matt Damon, who is having one of the best seasons any actor could hope for with "The Departed" and now "The Good Shepherd."
But Damon is virtually out of the running for Best Actor Oscar consideration for his very different turns in these two big, expensive, ambitious pictures. It's sorry only in contrast to his "Departed" co-star Leonardo DiCaprio who has been double nominated as Best Actor for the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards (which air on E! Entertainment cable channel Jan. 20, a week after they’re actually presented) for "The Departed" where he is the good guy, a police recruit having a breakdown as a mole in Jack Nicholson’s gang, and "Blood Diamond" where he resurrects Bogie as a mercenary adventurer who has a change of heart before the film’s final African sunset.
Ironically Damon, most excellent as "Departed"'s sexually impotent bad guy, the upwardly mobile police recruit who is actually a departmental mole for Nicholson’s gangster, replaced DiCaprio in Robert De Niro’s "The Good Shepherd" to play the ultimate C.I.A. insider, Damon might not be “brave” to do as De Niro wanted and give us a faceless bureaucrat whose life spent spying not only wrecks his marriage to Angelina Jolie but any chance of happiness with any woman as well as destroying his relationship with his only son and ultimately, it’s suggested, drives him mad.
David Denby’s rave New Yorker review this week calls the film a masterful study of paranoia. But playing bad guys or colorless, emotionally restricted functionaries doesn’t put you in the forefront of awards recognition. Even as Damon proves what a fine actor he is and how interesting his choices are outside his franchise work with Jason Bourne and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, it's just not his Oscar year.
The mesmerizing espionage thriller chronicles the inception and ascendancy of the CIA. At its heart is the stoic Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, in a superb, nuanced performance).
Christian Science Monitor
Damon does subtle work within the narrowest of confines.
Dad is played by Matt Damon, who delivers a fascinating variation on the secretive, tightly wound types he’s played recently in “The Departed” and “The Bourne Identity.”
Movie City News, Ray Pride
Working in the density of the best spy novels, and criss-crossing almost twenty-five years of history, encompassing World War II, the reconstruction fo Europe and 1961’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, Roth is comfortable in LeCarre territory, and Damon’s performance is worthy of comparison to those of Alec Guinness in similar roles. While the near-autistic reserve of Wilson’s intent powers of observation may put off some viewers—Damon, often shielded behind large horn-rims, is playing the most passive of characters—yet the power of the central dilemma grows from the analysis of how power can emanate more from concealment than display.
Damon is spectacular as a man who falls too easily into a life defined by mistrust, backstabbing and following orders. As the years pass, he develops a kind of moral blankness disguised as service to his country.
St Paul Pioneer Press
Damon's performance is spare but magnetic (Wilson is a close cousin to the shape-shifter Damon played in "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), and the scenes he shares with the astonishingly vibrant Tammy Blanchard, as his college sweetheart, poignantly reveal the trust and warmth he will never again allow himself to experience.
Las Vegas City Life
Like Russell Crowe in The Insider, Damon delivers a tense, impacted performance, becoming less substantial -- less corporeal -- as the movie progresses. Though he appears in almost every scene, Edward is never shown eating or sleeping and almost always with a significant space between himself and the other characters.
Los Angeles Times
Damon, in his second major role of the year (after "The Departed") once again demonstrates his ability to convey emotional reserves, to animate a character from the inside out and create a man we can sense has more of an interior life than he is willing to let on.
One feels a draft just watching Damon's character staring with seeming blankness at the squalid, underhanded things he does out of a fierce devotion to truth, justice and the American way. As he proved earlier this year in "The Departed," Damon can evoke moral ambiguity and bland menace better than most leading men of his generation. (Leonardo DiCaprio, the original choice for the role, would have given off way too much passionate conviction, as "Departed" also demonstrated to his credit.) Such a presence allows the rest of the cast to react with intriguing variety...
Damon, as both the young Yale student and the older spy hobnobbing with the east-coast elite, once again capitalizes on his Ivy League charm. But instead of projecting a slick outward façade, as he did earlier this year in The Departed, Damon curls up and closes off, receding into a world of careful strategy where every word spoken is a risk. In fact, Damon’s strongest moments are his silent ones. His penetrating stare suggests someone who is so skilled at manipulating communication that he has forgotten how to let it occur naturally. Every reaction and every word is calculated and cold.
Damon's performance is so rigorously controlled, his emoting so limited, that The Good Shepherd is close to being a movie about the robot who founded the CIA. He's only as human as the situation demands, and no more, quite believable as a spymaster who disappears inside himself and the twisty plot, only to emerge when forced to finally choose between country and family.
The Good Shepherd's dense, sometimes muddled story isn't what gives the film its impact—it's Damon, who somehow turns into a ghost without ever leaving the frame. He's always there—but now you see him, now you don't.
The story centers on the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly a man named Edward Wilson, played to steely perfection by Matt Damon. Damon has long been unappreciated as an actor and this is a performance that could change that. It’s an incredibly emotionally complex character, and Damon manages to get inside his skin and really inhabit a man who has blocked himself off from nearly every conceivable feeling one might have.
But the most restrained and by far the most impressive is Matt Damon. He is in almost every single scene of the movie and carries it admirably. De Niro clearly had a lot of faith in Damon, because everything that happens in the movie goes through him or is about him.
What’s astonishing about Damon’s performance is how much he can reveal about a man who seems utterly passive. Hiding behind a bland wardrobe and horn-rimmed glasses, the actor gives us a movie “hero” whose personality seems always in retreat. Yet through some actor’s alchemy, Damon fully inhabits the character, suggesting with almost imperceptible eye movements and body language the turmoil Wilson refuses to acknowledge.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Damon's mature, nuanced performance is impressive. Like Jack Lemmon as the frazzled parent in "Missing," he hides his emotions under his hat, within his overcoat and behind his standard-issue black-rimmed glasses. He is a man caught somewhere between his convictions and devious duties.
Knox News Sentinel
It's Damon, however, who defines "The Good Shepherd." His performance is one of stillness and quiet; Edward is a listener, a thinker and a plotter. Damon conveys his intelligence and, in brief flashes, the pain of the sacrifices he makes.
Damon's Edward spends most of the movie struggling with his conscience, a state that Damon plays with an array of muted shadings: He gives a gently shaped performance in a difficult, oblique role.
The art of quietude is a tough one for film actors to learn, especially ones on the near side of 50. On screen, youth often announces itself in virtuosic tics and jitters, scorning — or failing to recognize — the simple, granitic power of standing still.
One exception to this tendency is Matt Damon, a man who transmits more in the arch of his neck or the angle of his spectacles than many twitchier thespians. At 36, he's as controlled and contained as Anthony Hopkins was at 56: Standing at a window, his back stiff with inexpressible sadness, he might be Stevens in Remains of the Day. In The Good Shepherd he plays not a proper English butler but an American agent in the early days of the CIA, a milieu almost as mannered as a stone-cold country mansion.
The film marks Damon's confirmation as the deep-freeze minimalist of his generation.
Damon's entire performance is intelligently observational.
Damon's subtle, painfully introverted performance is the film's linchpin...
Damon, who played a very different sort of duplicity, a rotten cop, in Martin Scorsese's rollicking The Departed, is brilliant as Wilson, a man who has been harboring dark secrets since his youth.
Damon is the buttoned-down, bled-white center of the film, a still, calm, hyper-alert presence whose silences force others to speak rashly but which also keeps at arm's length the people to whom he should be closest. It's a fine turn in a film filled with wonderful acting...
Damon is the best reason to see The Good Shepherd. He proves to be a performer of great recessive force. He can suggest the coils of conspiratorial thought to an audience without dropping Wilson's cover to the other characters. He looks for the chinks in Wilson's armor; whenever they appear he lets the man's resentment and pain pour through them. He's terrific with props as well as with his co-stars, whether it's a pair of shoes that figure in his tangled bond with Gambon's witty, randy professor or a cross that marks the beginning and end of his love for a warmhearted deaf girl (the always-memorable Tammy Blanchard). The "money shots" in this movie come when Wilson abruptly gloms on to a terrible truth or, despite himself, registers an authentic emotion. And Damon delivers the goods. Like the Good Shepherd of the Bible, he pours his own life-blood into this movie so it won't just lie down and die.
New York Daily News
Following his vastly different turn in "The Departed," Damon delivers another outstanding performance that reminds us of his impressive range. Though Eric Roth's sprawling, unfocused script tells us too little about this repressed man, we can follow the toll of duty on the actor's pinched face and in his slowly sagging body.
Matt Damon is our conductor on the train of intrigue, and while the actor is in every scene, he’s a veritable Silent Bob throughout the film. Edward Wilson was a withdrawn, chilly witness to years of murder and betrayal; an astute judge of loyalty and a billboard for absentee fatherhood. He was someone who handed his country his life only to see it boomerang back to threaten his own family. Damon performs the character beautifully, staring out from behind thick glasses that smother his pinpoint poker face, but the mistakes that Wilson makes register on the actor’s mug in miniature, wounding ways.
The rest of the ensemble gets to be a little more flagrant and booming in their expressions of dread and frustration, but Damon isn’t afforded such luxuries; it’s amazing what he can accomplish with so little breathing space.
Fond du Lac Reporter
But it's Damon, as a strong but emotionally stifled patriot and anguished family man, who anchors the film with his best performance since "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and arguably his best to date.
Efilmcritic Eric Childress
Damon’s performance initially recalls his work in The Talented Mr. Ripley; the shy, but eager, ball of menace with a questionable sexuality. But just as Edwards settles into his role, Damon’s work takes on the
ethereal channeling of Hackman’s Harry Caul in The Conversation. The glasses and quiet demeanor in the face of escalating peril is no accident since The Good Shepherd unapologetically embroils itself in the atmosphere of dramatic thrillers from the Watergate era encased within the shell of Coppola’s Godfather saga.
Every frame is viewed through Damon’s eyes and he’s due an extraordinary amount of credit for keeping the secrets of what makes him tick even from us. It’s his show from start to finish...