The Good Shepherd is a movie like finest crystal: it is breathtaking and gorgeous and made by skilled craftsmen, but it falls into tiny useless pieces the instant you give it a good whack.

Was that an overly precious metaphor? God, it totally was. And kind of useless. Nobody whacks crystal.

And obviously, nobody gave The Good Shepherd a good whack at any time during production, because this is a classic textbook example of one of our more common Oscar Season diseases: the epic-length film with a really dynamite 90-minute movie buried somewhere inside.

Billed as the "story of the birth of the CIA," The Good Shepherd is really the story of one man's experience with that agency from its inception to the fallout from the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, told in extremely specific detail. I say with some feeling of absolute certainty that there is no character in any film out right now that the audience comes to know as well as Matt Damon's Edward Wilson, partly because they experience along with him almost every significant event of his life from his early twenties to his mid-forties, and partly because he is not a particularly interesting human being.

Now, here's the thing: its fantastically made. Robert De Niro, directing his second feature, turns out to be rather capable at marshaling people in front of a camera, even though he seems to steal a lot of tricks from the 1970s playbook, especially Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather (and look who produced The Good Shepherd! Wotta coincidence!). I suspect it helps that he was surrounded by very skillful people: not just the cast, but also cinematographer Robert Richardson, one of the flat-out geniuses of his field. I can't help but imagine that most of the appearance of the film can be attributed to him and not the director, especially given how many of the film's grace notes seem to be lifted more-or-less intact from The Aviator. Of course it doesn't really matter who makes a film look good, just that it looks good, and this film has a perfectly wonderful look full of dramatic shadows and dim rooms that remind us, yes, we are watching a film about Shadowy Men and Dark Plots.

The cast is mostly great: Damon stands out, naturally, just for the size of his role, but Angelina Jolie gives her best performance in years, spanning the gamut from flirtatious ingenue to embittered, lonely wife. Alec Baldwin continues to be the best character actor in Hollywood, a fact which surprises me every time I encounter it, with his...I don't know...I lack the technical words to describe acting, but Baldwin is fantastic here. I found myself very sad when his scenes ended. I could stay here all day going through the good performances: just look at the cast. Of course they're good.

Thing is - and of course there's a thing, I as much as said so up top - the thing is, the film is long. Hurtfully long. And it's literal. So damn literal. When I say "literal," what I mean is this: the theme is basically the idea that the CIA was born of America's not-so-secret desire to be run by benevolent totalitarians, and that we're basically trusting their good sense to not do things like install wiretaps or invade countries, and that their sense is in fact not good at all, but just about the worst sense of anyone who lives in America. The subplot involves people who ruin everything around them because they have daddy issues.

Some paranoid people claim that this has modern-day relevance, but I'm not sure what they're talking about.

So anyway, that's a good theme. That's a theme I want to see in a movie. And I'll be damned if I didn't see just that, over and over and over and over again. And without much if any subtlety. I shall provide an example: a major recurring motif in the film is the Yale Skull & Bones Society, which apparently basically invented the CIA. Now, in 2006 - the year The Good Shepherd was made - most of us will instantly think "George W. Bush" when we hear "Skull & Bones." And I'm all for movies which associated the current president with semi-fascist secret clubs that want white people to rule all non-white people in America, but the way that it's done here - constantly bringing the group up, constantly talking about the father-and-son nature of it, constantly reminding us of the political clout of the Bonesmen - is akin to having De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth sitting behind your left should the entire movie, and coughing loudly every five minutes:

"You get that it's about Bush, right?"

"Yes, Mr. De Niro."

"Great" [beat] "Yeah, so that's really about Bush, you got that?"

"Oh my God, go away, you starred in Hide and Seek."

And so on with everything: the CIA kills men's souls. Liars beget liars. The Russians and Americans are indistinguishable. The hell of it is, this could all be really fantastic, "top five films of the year" sort of fantastic, if it wasn't so thuddingly repetitive. There is quite literally not one single scene in the whole movie that isn't materially recreated elsewhere. The result is simply insulting, as though we can't get what's going on without hearing about it constantly. The word "boring" is simply an awful thing to use about a movie unless you're 13 years old, but it's entirely satisfactory and accurate here. This is a boring film.

But a monumentally well-crafted boring film, and if the 1+ hour of deadwood were carved away, it could something approaching masterpiece status. As it is, there's no life, no energy, and the whole thing feels as soulless and airless and suffocating as the cloak-and-dagger world it seeks to reveal.