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Robert De Niro Is Good 'Shepherd' of Damon-Jolie Spy Flick

De Niro Shepherds Spy Flick | George Clooney | Cruise Redux; James Brown in Town

De Niro 'Shepherds' Spy Flick

Robert De Niro hasn’t directed a movie since 1993’s "A Bronx Tale," but he’s had "The Good Shepherd" in mind all this time.

De Niro told me last night at the movie’s big gala New York City premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s three-tiered Allen Room that he started working on the CIA material about eight years ago.

“Only before 9/11 no one wanted to do it. After 9/11 it was easier.”

For De Niro, that tragic day is sort of a dividing line. A longtime (now former) resident of Tribeca, which is near Ground Zero, De Niro was reluctantly called into action once the smoke of the World Trade Center disaster cleared.

He and partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff rallied the city to save the economy around the Ground Zero area. They took huge groups for bus tours and dinner in Little Italy and Chinatown. And they started the Tribeca Film Festival, which is now a year-round project.

But you know, the big attention-getters last night were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who stole the premiere. Jolie has a small part in "Shepherd." Pitt goes where she goes. And the entire paparazzi corps goes where they go.

So even though their interest in "The Good Shepherd" is at best tangential, there they were at Lincoln Center. They are tall, and very good-looking. The security team told me they were extremely pleasant. They did not even adopt an attitude.

Pitt had a long, intense conversation with the actual star of "Shepherd," Matt Damon, who brought all of his family down from Boston, including his recently re-married father, Kent, and Matt’s wife of one year, who asked me to call her Lucy.

About once a year, Damon and company hit New York for the premiere of some new movie. They are the nicest gang you could hope to meet.

In "The Good Shepherd," Damon barely smiles for three hours. How did he maintain his dour expression ?

“Are you kidding?” he asked. “You’ve got Robert De Niro standing just off-camera. And after every take he says, ‘Maybe you want to try it this way.’ You don’t say 'no.' It’s Robert [bleepin’] DeNiro!”

Chazz Palminteri, who got his start with De Niro in "A Bronx Tale," came by to exchange war stories with Damon.

“When he likes you,” Chazz said of De Niro to Damon, “he really likes you.”

By the way, what was it that made De Niro so interested in the CIA to keep working on the movie for so long?

“You gotta love all that spy stuff,” he said.

George Clooney's Secret Mission

George Clooney is on his way this morning from Beijing to Cairo on a secret mission. I knew about it several days ago, but Clooney asked to keep it mum until he'd been in and out of China so as not to jeopardize his project.

The plan: to talk to representatives in both China and Egypt about the genocide going on in Darfur, Sudan.

So far, 450,000 people have died in Darfur, and another 2.5 million have been displaced. Four million people are currently in need of aid, according to United Nations reports.

Some of the displaced Sudanese include the “Lost Boys,” depicted in the wonderful upcoming documentary “God Grew Tired of Us.”

Why did Clooney choose China and Egypt? The countries are on the opposite ends of a debate on how to help Sudan. China, for example, has been supplying Sudan with arms while buying a huge volume of oil from the African country. Nevertheless, China has sided with the Sudanese government in keeping out U.N. peacekeepers.

Egypt, on the other hand, is seen as a key mediator in the Sudan crisis. Recently, Egypt proposed sending in a peacekeeping force not from the U.N. but from African and Arab countries to try and stabilize Darfur. Egypt was backed by several other countries including France, but Sudan turned them down in the end.

Clooney, who's been passionate about helping the people of Darfur, is apparently hoping to bring good news to Cairo from Beijing. It's kind of amazing, isn't it? Two movie actors and two well-known athletes are doing a job that has not been accomplished by professional diplomats.

Indeed, Clooney has not been alone on his trip. Among his companions are Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, who starred in the Oscar-nominated film "Hotel Rwanda." Cheadle is devoted to ending the Sudanese famine and mass deaths before it becomes like Rwanda in 1994.

Also on the trip are American Olympic heroes, including speed skater Joey Cheek. Why Cheek? In February, the Olympian donated his $25,000 gold medal award from the United States Olympic Committee to support Sudanese child refugees from the Darfur region.

Since China is the largest investor in Sudan, and China is about to sponsor the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Clooney and Cheadle are bringing Olympians along on the trip presumably to suggest there could be an Olympic boycott if changes are not made in Sudan right away.

There is already a lot of talk on the Internet cross-referencing Darfur and the Olympics, something the Chinese could not be too happy about.

Clooney, I'm told, will end this mission with some kind of report to the U.N., and maybe another visit and speech similar to the one he gave last May.

Clooney keeps insisting he doesn't want to run for political office, but at this point, I'd say give him time. In five or six years, he very well could be — if not should be — the junior senator from Kentucky.

Cruise Redux; James Brown in Town

“There was more money than talent.”

That’s a quote I got from a guest at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ second wedding reception, the one that was held last weekend in Beverly Hills. “It was a business deal,” said the guest, with raised eyebrows.

Another Cruise-Holmes observer said they’d been to dinner with the, er, happy couple and that “they made out at the table. It was very creepy.”

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, plays BB King’s in New York on New Year’s Eve. It’s becoming an annual event, and certainly one not to miss. …

The National Board of Review certainly wasn’t happy with our reports on them last week. To get even, they sent a big box of cookies. The idea is to make it impossible for me to attend because the tux won’t fit. Note to Annie Schulhof: I have a good tailor. …

Every awards group has given Best Actor and Actress so far to Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker. Yes, they were each terrific. But do they have to get every award? How about a little imagination? Or independence?

For the record, Judi Dench is mesmerizing in "Notes on a Scandal," Penelope Cruz is sultry and fresh in "Volver" and Naomi Watts is a revelation in "The Painted Veil."

On the actors’ side, Ken Watanabe could not be more of a leading man in "Letters From Iwo Jima," Peter O’Toole is sublime in "Venus" and Ryan Gosling makes a breakthrough in "Half Nelson."

If anyone ever sees it, "Factory Girl" features a transcendent performance by Guy Pearce as Andy Warhol. Come on folks, mix it up a little!