The History Place - Movie Review

The Good Shepherd

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

In a perverse way, Robert DeNiro's The Good Shepherd is as much about family and tribe as it is about the birth pangs of the Central Intelligence Agency. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the son of a Navy admiral who killed himself because in some ambiguous way he had betrayed God, country and family. The stoic "incurably romantic" Wilson's life is in many ways a penance for the sins of the father. Later, Wilson's own son (Eddie Redmayne) follows his father's footsteps into the CIA with tragic consequences. His shortcomings and his father's promise to protect him create the dramatic dilemma at the film's core. Wilson's solution to the dilemma is reminiscent of Michael Corleone's ruthlessness in The Godfather.

The film's seemingly flawless evocation of the 1950s is equally evocative of The Godfather. Those of us old enough to remember the Fifties cannot avoid a sense of déjà vu. Both films get things just right--down to the wallpaper and the curtains. No surprise then, that The Good Shepherd's executive producers include Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the Godfather saga.

The Good Shepherd opens with the Bay of Pigs debacle. Damon's character is depicted as having a key role in the abortive 1961 invasion of Cuba. He quickly concludes that a leak near the top tipped Castro to the precise landing site. A counter intelligence specialist by long experience and personal preference, he heads down an investigative trail that inevitably leads to his own front door.

As Damon/Wilson's inquiry marches down its narrow, convoluted path, the film itself takes a quick turn, back to 1939, when Wilson was recruited first to Yale's top-secret Skull and Bones fraternity and from there into the new, nameless agency that would be World War II's OSS. DeNiro himself appears as General Bill Sullivan, aka Wild Bill Donovan. Sullivan's recruiting of Wilson takes just a five-minute conversation. The call from Sullivan to go to covert war subsequently comes as a set of orders delivered by a green lieutenant in the middle of Wilson's wedding reception. His already pregnant wife (Angelina Jolie) doesn't see him again for half a dozen years.

Those six years of counterintelligence work in England and post-war Berlin test Wilson's idealism, as he is forced to dispose of a disloyal lover and an unreliable mentor. Back home at last in 1947, he is once more recruited by good old General Sullivan, who is being whittled away by diabetes. "It's undignified to die from the feet up," he confides with a rueful chuckle to Wilson, who unhesitatingly signs on for the CIA.

Wilson's son, Edward Jr., who meets his daddy for the first time in '47, grows up in a living hell of fear, infidelity and secrecy. What does this atmosphere of official secrecy and marital deceit inspire him to do? Why, to become a spy just like the old man, of course. And like his father, he too is an incurable romantic whose professionalism and patriotism--same as dear old dad's--are compromised by the love of a woman.

Three hours of interwoven flashbacks and flash-forwards are more than enough to present the panoply of CIA sins. We witness the interrogation of a suspected double-agent, complete with LSD. We see grainy black-and-white footage of what LeCarre's George Smiley books call "a honey trap," a sordid blend of sex and stolen secrets in a shabby hotel room where a peephole camera records the lot. We are treated to the assassination of an old but now-unreliable colleague along the Thames embankment; the last we see of the poor devil is his cane bobbing in the river. And we observe the overthrow of the equally unreliable president of a Banana Republic.

The film's pace is slow. Damon's portrayal of the central (no pun intended) character is meticulous and masterful. The star-studded supporting cast is darned near letter perfect. Movie-goers who consider Casino Royale the epitome of the espionage genre won't sit through The Good Shepherd. But history buffs who like books such as Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost, another evocation of the birth of CIA, will adore this epic saga.

Near the end, Edward (never "Ed" in a million years) Wilson moves into his counterintelligence wing of the brand-new Langley headquarters. The agency's new director recalls for Wilson his recent Congressional testimony.
"A Senator asked me, 'Why is it always CIA, never 'the CIA'? I asked him, you never put 'the' in front of 'God,' either, do you?"

CIA is not equivalent to God for Edwards, however. His philosophy comes through in a brief conversation with a Mafia don (Joe Pesci) he recruits by promising him protection from deportation.

"We Italians have family. The Jews have tradition. What do you people have?"
Replies Edwards without hesitation, "We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting."

In the end, this verity determines his course of conduct, as he moves to save family and honor with a single, ruthless act.

Rated R - For violence, sexuality and language.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

The Good Shepherd - Official Website
Return to The History Place - Movie Reviews Index

The History Place Main Page | American Revolution | Abraham Lincoln | U.S. Civil War | Child Labor in America 1908-1912 | U.S. in World War II in the Pacific | John F. Kennedy | Vietnam War | The Rise of Hitler | Triumph of Hitler | Defeat of Hitler | Hitler Youth | Timeline of World War II in Europe | Holocaust Timeline | Photo of the Week| Speech of the Week | This Month in History | Books on Hitler's Germany | History Videos | Send Feedback ]

Copyright © 2007 The History Place™ All Rights Reserved

Terms of use: Private home/school non-commercial, non-Internet re-usage only is allowed of any text, graphics, photos, audio clips, other electronic files or materials from The History Place.