Starting with the Bay of Pigs debacle, then flashing back to the early days of U.S. espionage during World War II, and continuing through the creation and development of the CIA during early decades of the Cold War, Robert De Niro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD offers the most capacious dramatic account of America’s intelligence service I’ve ever encountered in a movie.

Centered on a buttoned-down counter-intelligence czar played Matt Damon, De Niro’s second directorial outing (after 1993’s A Bronx Tale) is nothing if not hyper-ambitious in scope and subject.

And beyond the matter, there’s the manner. With its muted cinematography (by Robert Richardson), dense, oblique plotting, and welter of complicated characters played by superb actors, the film recallsvery deliberately, I thinka number of great movies from three decades ago, the likes of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather and The Conversation, Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, to name just a few.

If either the espionage subject or the cinematic reference points just mentioned excite your interest, you should definitely see The Good Shepherd. Admittedly, that’s the lead-in to a rather unusual recommendation. Normally I wouldn’t give a strong endorsement to a film that fails to add up in the final analysis, which, alas, is the case here. Yet what The Good Shepherd attemptsa range of smart ambitions far beyond the overheated genre moves of The Departed, by De Niro’s old mentor Martin Scorseseis extraordinary enough to make the film, at least for certain audiences, far more fascinating than most of the year’s nominal successes.

Watching the movie, I felt sure it must come from some well-regarded bestseller that I had missed. It certainly has the temper of complex, well-wrought, fact-based fiction. Yet it is an original screenplay by Eric Roth, who was co-credited (with Tony Kushner) with writing what struck me as the best movie of 2005, Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Roth’s had an interesting career. While he made his name by adapting the inane Forrest Gump, he also scripted two Michael Mann films, The Insider and Ali, which, in their different ways, offer probing studies of evolving American mores in recent decades.

In The Good Shepherd, Roth again explores the fault line between the personal and the sociopolitical, this time examining the CIA’s pre-history and first three decades through the prism of one operative’s oddly opaque life. Though he’s reportedly based on two spies of real-life notoriety, James Jesus Angleton and Richard Bissell, the film’s Edward Wilson (Damon) is as blandly anonymous as his name. The consummate company man, he’s intriguing, at first, for being so ordinary.

What makes this poker-faced, bureaucratic spy tick? Intrepidly, Roth and De Niro proceed as if the question comprised a probe into the character of 20th-century America itself. By starting out with, and repeatedly returning to, Wilson participating in the disastrous anti-Castro operation at the Bay of Pigs, the film posits a brink where deception and self-deception, power and overreaching, perilously intertwine. You can indeed sense the outlines of the current Iraq disaster in that episode’s cocktail of hubris and miscalculation.

Searching for its roots, the film wends back to Wilson’s undergraduate days at Yale, where, in his initiation to the Skull and Bones society, he reveals that his father committed suicide, apparently provoked by accusations of weakness and disloyalty. The social consequences of this trauma match the psychological: Striving to prove his loyalty and strength, Wilson must also endeavor to make his way among fellows whose privilege and wealth far exceed his own. So, with an unintended pregnancy as his excuse, he marries the sister (Angelina Jolie) of a rich classmate before shipping off to World War II service in the OSS, the gentleman’s-club spy outfit that later morphs into the CIA.

I was steadily enthralled as much of this story unfolded, due not only to the expanse of history coveredWilson is in England during the war, in Germany around the time of the Potsdam conference, then returns to the United States where he deals with Latin America and counter-intelligence against Soviet moles in the ’50s and ’60sbut also because of Roth’s sharp, concise, understated writing and De Niro’s meticulously textured evocation of the story’s bygone eras and deft handling of a stellar supporting cast that includes William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci, John Turturro and De Niro himself.

In tackling such a meaty subject and in evoking so many illustrious cinematic precedents, De Niro and Roth set the bar extremely high for themselves. Unfortunately, the main question their film bequeaths viewers is how its final effect could be so diffuse and underwhelming rather than powerful. I wouldn’t blame Damon, though he’s the kind of leading man better suited to contemporary genre heroes like Jason Bourne and, as Wilson, looks too young when he’s supposed to be middle-aged.

I also wouldn’t necessarily fault the concept of a protagonist who, despite a crucial choice he makes in the final reel, remains largely a blank, a cipher. Cinema is full of such resonantly inscrutable nonentities. The characters played by Gene Hackman in The Conversation and Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Conformist come to mind. So does Being There‘s Chance the gardener (an ancestor of Forrest Gump, perhaps) and, indeed, that most eloquent of enigmas, Citizen Kane‘s Charles Foster Kane.

All of these characters, however, serve, in eye-of-the-hurricane fashion, to reveal the tempestuous historical and social terrain surrounding them, and it’s this quality that The Good Shepherd crucially lacks. Through much of the film, I noticed and was impressed that its story didn’t seem to be tilting to the ideological left or right. And while I still think that tack is commendable, and far preferable to toeing any obvious polemical line, the movie ultimately takes it too far, avoiding the chance to explore the political pressures and complexities of an era defined by them.

All of the great films that attempt what The Good Shepherd attempts finally offer an interpretation of the dramatic territory they survey, a unifying sense of what all the sound and fury means. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was simply a sprawling gangland saga until Francis Coppola envisioned it as a metaphor for American capitalism, and made a masterpiece that depends entirely on that understanding. De Niro has obviously learned tons about the outward mechanics and movements of movies from Coppola and other masters. But like most actors, his attention aims primarily at creating a convincing surface. He doesn’t grasp, or at least know how to articulate, the depths of meaning that lie beneath.

The Good Shepherd opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

I’ve long wished that there were such a thing as the Southern Oscars to honor moviesespecially those by nativesthat get the region right. Though in most years there would be precious few nominees, those rarities are increasingly striking. Last year we had Phil Morrison’s Junebug and Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads, both from North Carolina. This year, the Oscar for Best Southern Filmthere’s no competitiongoes to a feisty indie upstart from Arkansas, Joey Lauren Adams’ COME EARLY MORNING.

Though it’s set and was shot in Adams’ hometown of North Little Rock, the film has notable North Carolina connections. Adams, an actress who here makes a very impressive debut as writer and director, recently co-starred in The Break-Up by Raleigh native Peyton Reed. Her cinematographer is the excellent Tim Orr, a North Carolina School of the Arts graduate who started out on the Winston-Salem-shot George Washington. And her protagonist’s distracted dad is played by Scott Wilson, who essayed a similar role in Junebug.

At the commanding center of Adams’ film is Kentuckian Ashley Judd, who started her career playing the at-loose-ends heroine of Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise, surely one of the top 10 Southern indies of all time. Having become a staple of the femme-centered thriller genre since then, Judd returns to top form and congenial cultural and dramatic territory playing Lucy, a young woman given to drinking too many beers at a local juke joint called The Forge, hooking up with stray guys, and hating herselfor pretending not toin the morning.

That may make her sound like a predictable type, but Lucy’s more complex than her most self-defeating habits would suggest. She’s a contractor who has the professional respect of her seasoned partner (Stacy Keach). She also seems smart enough to sense some connection between her erratic behavior and the psychological patterns exhibited by her gruff, withholding father (Wilson) and constantly feuding grandparents (Diane Ladd and Pat Corley). The question is, can she kick her compulsions when she meets a genuinely nice guy, a new-to-town roofer named Cal (a very nice performance by Jeffrey Donovan)?

From some angles, Come Early Morning is an astute (if hardly groundbreaking) seriocomic character study of a spunky woman struggling against inner and outer limitations. But Southerners will recognize it as something else as well. With its flavorful evocations of Saturday night juking, Sunday morning church, frog gigging, arguments over old versus country music, and countless other precise details, it’s also a knowing tribute to life in a part of the country that sees character as inextricably connected to place and the past.

Come Early Morning opens Friday in select theaters.