The Good Shepherd
|Matt Damon||Edward Wilson|
|Robert De Niro||General Bill Sullivan|
|Angelina Jolie||Clover/Margaret Russell|
|John Turturro||Ray Brocco|
|Alec Baldwin||Sam Murach|
|Joe Pesci||Joseph Palmi|
|Billy Crudup||Arch Cummings|
|Directed by||Robert De Niro|
If politics is personal, the same is true in spades of espionage. It?s people on the ground developing relationships and collecting information, sifting and evaluating and processing, making judgments on what is accurate and what it means and who can be trusted (the answer to that last, by the way, is nobody). When ?human intel? is neglected or undervalued or mishandled, you get the kind of mess our country finds itself in today.
The Good Shepherd is a highly personal journey through the formation of the CIA. Or to be more accurate, the formation of CIA. ?Someone asked me why we say CIA and not the CIA,? an Agency bigwig (Lee Pace) observes toward the end of the movie. ?I answered ?Why do we say God, and not the God??? It?s not the most felicitous bit of dialogue, but it does get across something of the attitude that led to the abuses of power in the Agency, and the post-Vietnam decline of its reputation and effectiveness.
The story of The Good Shepherd is the story of fictional top CIA hand Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a character said to be based primarily on James Jesus Angelton, founder of the Agency?s counterintelligence operation. We meet Wilson first in 1961, during the events surrounding the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The Cubans? readiness for the attack suggests they had advance intelligence (there?s little emphasis on President Kennedy?s withdrawing of air support,) and Wilson is charged with uncovering the source of the leak. An envelope mysteriously slipped under his door contains an audiotape and photographs of two lovers whose pillow talk may reveal the security breach (the woman can be heard murmuring ?People who love each other can?t have secrets?you are safe here with me,? neither of which proves to be true). Wilson?s team begins the fascinating process of analyzing the evidence to find out who and where the lovers are.
The narrative skips back and forth in time. The earliest scene concerns the five-year-old Edward?s presence at the suicide of his father (Timothy Hutton), who may have been involved in unethical and possibly even treasonous activities. ?Never lie,? is the advice the father gives his little son just before closing his door and putting a bullet in his head.
Wilson?s history picks up in earnest in 1939, during his undergraduate studies at Yale. He?s a serious and brilliant student of literature, and a favorite of British Professor Fredericks (Michael Gambon). But he has his fun-loving side, as evidenced by his impressive performance in drag as Gilbert & Sullivan?s Poor Little Buttercup.
Then a few things happen. He is tapped for Yale?s Skull and Bones, a secret society steeped in history and mystery (Bush 41 and 43 are members; so is John Kerry.) He is persuaded by an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin) to gather information on Fredericks, a possible Nazi sympathizer. He falls in love with one girl, the sweet, deaf Laura (Tammy Blanchard), and marries another, the aggressive Margaret (Angelina Jolie), a Senator?s daughter whom he?s gotten pregnant. It?s not long before Wilson?s fun-loving side has vanished completely, and his father?s last advice has been buried beneath his new identity: spy.
Through his Skull and Bones connections, Wilson is recruited by General Sullivan (a sleek and entertaining Robert De Niro whose character is modeled on ?Wild Bill? Donovan, founder of the OSS), who frankly admits he is recruiting ?patriotic, honorable, bright young men with the right background ? in other words, no Negroes or Jews, and very few Catholics.? Wilson spends the war years overseas, learning tradecraft as he goes and accumulating contacts, including his KGB counterpart, code name Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), and the charming, unreliable British agent Cummings (Billy Crudup, in a character suggesting the turncoat Kim Philby).
By the time he comes home and meets his son Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne) for the first time, his marriage to Margaret is an empty parcel. Wilson himself has retreated deep into a gray flannel shell, a faceless, impersonal functionary with few words and fewer discernible human emotions. As the central figure of this two-and-three-quarter hour marathon, that can be a challenge to the attention. But Damon does a commanding job in the role, and De Niro?s direction through an incredibly complex thicket of plots and characters maintains a compelling tension.
Sullivan has been charged with turning the OSS into a peacetime intelligence outfit, the CIA, which he hopes will remain ?America?s eyes and ears ? I don?t want it to become its heart and soul.? Wilson is the embodiment here of the CIA, and while he is presented as a flawed human being, there is no doubt as to his unswerving loyalty to his country. He does some morally terrible things. There is a brutal scene of interrogation of a Soviet defector involving torture and the administration of LSD as Wilson?s muscle goon (John Turturro) tries to break down the Russian?s story. From our side of the screen it?s clear the guy?s telling the truth, and we get a bit impatient with Wilson for not seeing it.
There is an awesome amount of detail to absorb, a huge roster of characters to keep straight, and trying to stay abreast of the time frames that rattle around like particles in Brownian motion keeps the mind nimble while the long running time threatens the posterior with bedsores. But the screenplay by Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump) adds up and holds together, solid acting drives it, and De Niro keeps the whole thing taut and absorbing. It is, finally, a tremendous accomplishment, the best journey through the tortuous alleys of espionage since Alec Guinnes?s Smiley in the John Le Carr? classic 1979 miniseries, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
© Text 2006 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be