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
"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
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.