And that is his problem.
The Good Shepherd is a story about a man who sells his soul. Not to a religious belief, money, a woman, or anything that is physical or concrete. Edward Bell Wilson sells his soul to an "idea" and he discovers that his choice has costs that he himself had not foreseen. In the end, The Good Shepherd is a tragedy for not just one man's life but countless others around him.
Shown through a series of flashbacks starting from the early 1960's, Edward's story begins as a young student at Yale. After entering Skull and Bones, an elite club of spoiled students which allows him access to a close group of influential men, he finds himself offered the chance to serve his country in Europe before America's entry into World War 2. Joining the 0SS, Edward enters the life of a spy and from there finds himself with a front row seat to the mid 20th century's most important events.
However that is where the costs of his decision begin to mount almost immediately. Upon entry to Bones he meets Margaret Ann Russell (Angelina Jolie), a sister to one of his closest friends. A quick night of passion results in a pregnancy which forces Edward to sacrifice his relationship with Laura (Tammy Blanchard), a fellow Yale student, in order to marry Margaret. In doing so he loses perhaps the only woman he has loved and while finding himself in a loveless marriage which will have unintended consequences for the future. A pattern begins which will trap Edward and cause his relationship to his son Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) to suffer. Edward sacrifices his personal love for personal responsibility but he remains distant from the reality that creates.
The creation of the CIA by General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Nero) forces Edward into a world of fear and hostility between fellow agents, Soviet spies, and double agents. The overthrow of Guatemala ruler Jacob Arbenz, the failed Bay of Pigs operation, and the discovery of a possible spy within their own ranks draws Edward farther into the halls of power and international relations but also more away from his wife and son. He becomes a man with a mission but without a soul. He thinks and acts like a puppet whose strings are pulled from above while himself pulls those beneath him. There is no doubt or reason to believe that he is wrong or that he is acting in a way that is perhaps blind at best or morally empty at worst. He has become devoted to an idea and that idea is the CIA and the United States it attempts to serve.
The greatest challenge to that belief is the discovery that his son's lover, a young Congolese woman, is a Soviet double agent who is perhaps responsible for the leaking of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Edward realizes that there no way he can allow that woman, who is now engaged to his son, into his family without the risk of more information being given to the Soviets. On her marriage day she pays the price of betrayal, without Edward Jr. knowing about it at first, after being forced from a plane during flight.
It's this last move on Edward's part that reveals his true character more than any other action. Even as his son weeps in his arms at the news of his fiancée's death, he himself shows no real sign of remorse for the pain he has caused even if it was the right choice to make. He is a soldier and he knows what he must do, a man such as him is one who cannot be expected to do anything but what is expected of him. That makes Edward Bell Wilson, a man who can only see the world through the eyes of the CIA, a defender of freedom but also one who sacrifices his own without second thought.
Is Edward Bell Wilson a good man? That is the question The Good Shepherd asks. The answer depends on who is asked and what that person values the most: freedom, love, or duty?