The Good Shepard

December, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Robert De Niro

Starring:Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci, and John Turturro

What a superb example of perfect timing; this sweeping, fictionalized tale of the C.I.A.’s formation and early operations arrives on the screen at a time when debate over the Bush Administration’s tactics in response to terrorism have triggered a fierce debate that’s likely to occupy the American public between now and the next presidential election. Like Blood Diamond, another of this year-end’s “big” movies, Shepard is unapologetically polemical in its approach, but this one gets it right. 

Wearing the hats of producer, director and actor, Robert De Niro provides audiences with a compelling spy drama that succeeds in giving paranoia, arrogance & bureaucracy a human face in the person of Edward Wilson, (Matt Damon) a career employee of the agency obviously based on the real-life James Angleton, who ran this country’s counter-intelligence operations for nearly two decades until his forced resignation in the mid-seventies. Collaborating with screenwriter Eric Roth, (The Insider, Forrest Gump, Ali) cinematographer Robert Richardson, (The Aviator, Nixon, Casino) and production designer Jeannie Claudia Oppenwall, (Seabiscuit, The Bridges of Madison Country) De Niro chronicles the development of America’s foreign intelligence activities beginning with the creation of the Office of Strategic Services during WW II. 

Recruiting from among the country’s Ivy League elite, The O.S.S. approached Wilson, a brilliant but withdrawn student of poetry at Yale and member of its secretive Skull and Bones Society. Wilson’s first assignments took him to London during The Blitz, where he was trained in counter-intelligence and mis-information by Britain’s best and brightest, some of whom, (like Kim Philby) went on to become Soviet agents during the Cold War, when America turned its focus from Nazism towards what it perceived as the surging tide of Communism. 

The director presents this history lesson in a series of protracted flashbacks; at the start of The Good Shepard, Wilson and his colleagues are smarting from the defeat of the C.I.A.-supported invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961. Wilson believes a leak provided Castro with crucial information about the attack’s landing site and Shepard’s plot revolves around Wilson’s obsessive attempts to uncover the person responsible. But what kind of man does it take to unravel the bits and pieces of conflicting data that can provide a conclusive answer? 

Under De Niro’s meticulous direction, Damon fashions a chillingly detached human cipher, nearly as disturbing as Gene Hackman’s nameless sound technician in The Conversation. Damon excels at portraying emotionally remote personalities who mask their feelings; (as he’s demonstrated in the Bourne thrillers and more recently The Departed) here he overcomes the script’s rather simplistic Freudian explanation of his motivations, (distant father and smothering mother) to provide a distinctly creepy bureaucrat who elevates national security to the level of personal theology. 

As Wilson sifts through surveillance photos and covertly-taped conversations to find the source of the leak, the film’s flashbacks deftly profile a paranoid-in-making, someone who will devour his own entrails when the need arises. As his career path carries him to increasingly important jobs within the C.I.A., his suspicions of those around him grow right along with his expanded responsibilities. The cat and mouse games he plays with his Russian counterpart culminate in a way that damns Wilson even as it provides the answer he’s sought.

The Good Shepard isn’t trying for historical accuracy of course; there was no leak in Cuba in 1961, but there were others during Wilson’s tour of duty and De Niro’s intent on demonstrating the environment in which the agency worked, not the specifics of one incident. To accomplish this, the director and his crew present a fabulous recreation of the climate in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, when Hitler and Stalin successively held the world by the throat and America began to see itself as the last bastion of freedom in an increasingly threatened world. In Shepard, the men selected by our government to lead this effort, (The F.B.I., C.I.A., Army & Administration officials) speak with an assurance worthy of Donald Rumsfeld; with breathing arrogance, Wilson and his colleagues simply assume that what the world needs to be safe is American dominance in global affairs. The clique of civil servants who were recruited to serve in the C.I.A., Shepard suggests, (white, male, well-educated, upper class) elevated U.S. goals into an ideology that justified the violation of the very principles upon which our country was founded, all in defense of “American interests”. Thus is nationalism converted into secular theology…

Shepard creates this creepy group-think by personifying it; De Niro’s large and talented cast, (William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci, Keir Dullea and De Niro himself) present the audience with men who may often act in error but never in doubt, each emitting a chilling certainty about the motivations of this country’s enemies and the proper method of responding to them. Like last year’s wonderful Good Night and Good Luck, which used Edward R. Morrow’s unmasking of Senator Joe McCarthy to make a point about American’s current obsession with terrorism, The Good Shepard  explores the birth of our intelligence services to illustrate the hubris which has fueled so much of America’s involvement in foreign affairs in the last half century, from anti-communist adventures in Asia, Latin America and Africa right up to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and our subsequent misreading of the Iraqi people.

Shepard isn’t flawless; Wilson’s awkward courtship of a deaf college student, (a psychologically isolated young man drawn to a physically isolated young woman is a bit too pat) his subsequent shotgun marriage to the younger sister of a Yale classmate, (played by the lusciously improbable Angelina Jolie) and the contrived involvement of Wilson’s son highlight the script’s tendency to mine much of the country club milieu of its characters for melodramatic effect. But Shepard succeeds despite these lapses, especially in its visual impact; the film is shot in near perpetual shadow, reminiscent of black and white film noir thrillers from the ‘40’s, while Roth’s screenplay provides one tantalizing red herring after another, the better to keep audiences guessing about Wilson’s ultimate adversary. Rich period details, from Homburgs to vintage buses to housefrau hairstyles help recreate the post-war era in which Shepard’s events in take place.

In giving audiences a sprawling, richly atmospheric thriller that’s laced with acidic observations about the morality of American espionage, The Good Shepard  makes its point not by preaching, but simply by creating a story rooted in historical fact and letting audiences draw their own conclusions. That respect for the viewer’s intelligence helps make this one of the very best films of the year.             

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