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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Shepherd

January 17, 2007

In The Good Shepherd, the acting is uniformly good, the direction creates an appropriately sinister mood and the screenplay is rich with ideas. So why did watching it feel like a homework assignment?

The Good Shepherd has all the makings of a good yarn: in tracing the growth of America’s intelligence apparatus from the ’30s to the ‘60s, the plot touches on Nazi sympathizers in America, the bombing of London, the evacuation of German and Jewish scientists from postwar Berlin, the rise of Castro, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Spies are thrown out of airplanes, tortured with LSD and betrayed by their closest friends and students. But the last thing director Robert DeNiro wants to do in The Good Shepherd is entertain you. His vision of the rise of the CIA is devoid of glamour or adventure; as DeNiro and screenwriter Eric Roth’s see it, the most successful spooks are the ones who take no chances, the ones who keep life’s joys at bay. The more soulless the man, the better the spy.

Perhaps the most soulless of them all is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a fictional character modeled on James Jesus Angleton, the head of counterintelligence for the CIA from 1954 to ’74. As played by Damon, Wilson is a reserved, painfully serious man whose main strength as an agent is his ability to keep his mouth shut and do as he’s told. Dressed in grey suits, starched white shirts, blue ties and beige trenchcoats, he is the picture of anonymous bureaucracy. When he walks, he stares at the ground, his posture slightly droopy, as if he were weighted down by too many secrets. His face is frozen in a look of quiet sadness. He smiles once for each of the movie’s three hours.

The irony of Wilson’s ascendance to the pinnacle of the CIA is that he never quite makes a choice to become a spy; his fate is dictated by the decisions of others. He is chosen to join the Skull N’ Bones secret society while an undergrad at Yale, he is recruited by a general to join an overseas intelligence service forming for the impending war in Europe, he is seduced by the daughter of a senator, Clover Russell, without showing the slightest bit of interest—even though she’s played by the sexiest woman in the world, Angelina Jolie. Even his marriage is executed out of a sense of obligation after he impregnates Clover during a one-night stand. The only time he appears to make a definitive choice is when a soldier comes to his wedding reception with papers detailing his proposed mission to Europe. He accepts, but his decision is not motivated by ideals or passion; it is motivated by his desire to escape his shotgun wedding to a virtual stranger.

The Good Shepherd traces Wilson’s rise through the ranks of the Office of Special Services during World War II and then the CIA during the Cold War, up to his involvement in the disastrous Bay of Pigs affair. It is difficult to describe the plot in much more detail because it’s never entirely clear what Wilson does. Significant events happen—double-agents die, prisoners are swapped with the Russians, covert operations are planned—and he’s always in the vicinity of the action, but we never see him give an order, let alone handle a gun. He has plausible deniability—even to the viewer.

As unrevealing as he is to his fellow spooks, he is even more cryptic towards his family. He goes to Europe for extended stays (indeed, he doesn’t return from his first assignment in London until his son is five years old) and he barely speaks to his wife. We constantly see him on a secure phone at his house, whispering, closing the door in the face of his family as they do their best to listen to get some sense of who this strange, quiet man is that lives with them. As a child, his son is an insecure mess who longs for his father’s attention. As an adult, he joins the CIA against his mother’s wishes in an attempt to impress his father.

It takes a lot of balls to anchor your movie to such an unsympathetic character as Wilson, and his inscrutability is perfectly appropriate for a movie that’s all about the corroding power of secrets. But making a movie interesting and making it engaging are two different things; unlike The Godfather—which clearly inspired the style and plot of this movie—The Good Shepherd does not share enough of Wilson’s humanity to rope us in. As a viewer, I found myself as alienated from Wilson as he was from his fellow man.

DeNiro’s cause is not helped by Roth’s humorless screenplay. The occasional glimpses of the human behind the horn-rimmed glasses are stifled before they’re given a chance to develop. After two decades of failed marriage, Wilson asks his wife at the 1961 Skull N’ Bones reunion if she’d like to dance, harkening back to their innocent meeting at the 1939 reunion. But Roth won’t let the characters have just a few minutes of joy; as soon as they start dancing, Clover tells Edward she’s leaving him.

For the most part, I enjoyed DeNiro’s classical, conservative approach to directing, but his relentlessly dreary mise-en-scene gets a bit tiresome. How many times can Wilson stare out a window through Venetian blinds in a darkened room and reflect on his past?

The trouble with The Good Shepherd isn’t that it fails to do what it sets out to do. If anything, it succeeds too well in its portrait of espionage as a dreary, morally bankrupt pursuit. There is nothing seductive in his anti-romantic portrait of the American intelligence apparatus as the plaything of paranoid WASPs. But how do you assess a movie that’s so obsessed with the notion of secrets that it makes its protagonist a cipher even to the audience? If your response to the movie were boredom, a bit of a confusion mixed with a shade of disgust, did the movie fail—or do exactly what it was supposed to do?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. jack lasky permalink
    March 23, 2007 6:41 am

    i have to confess that i was born in ussr nad it was easier for me to understand some nuances like a song sung by mirinov 2 which ends “let it always be FATHER (not MOTHER in the original version) before he commits the suiside.
    the scene and all participants in it – two mironovs,wilson and his assistant and the flashbacks that accompony it either offer the cues or muddy the water (depending on the timing of the flashbacks).
    roth may have never been in the spy game but he understands well that only three witnesses can verify the existence of the deal and there is only one scene where all three are present.
    it is a masterpiece in the same league as “conformist” ,”THIRD MAN” AND “conversation”but it requires so much detailed viewing that it gets lost on too many people.
    so my advice is :go and see it again …

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