The spook who stayed in the cold: an epic critique of the American espionage game
22 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
A gray winter day was a fitting time to see one of the first public screenings of a film called "The Good Shepherd," whose chilly hero Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, in a role modeled in part on CIA founder, James Jesus Angleton) is not so much all things to all men as nobody to anybody. A composite figure in a portrait of the birth, rise, and moral shriveling of the American CIA, Matt Damon's disturbingly shut-down Wilson would be one of recent film's most tragic figures if he were not such a hollow, unappealing man. Directing a long-contemplated project using a screenplay by Eric Roth (who penned "Munich"), Robert De Niro has forged a "Godfather" of Yankee spy-craft, a heavy, solemn epic about betrayal and loyalty in the world of espionage and counter-espionage dominated not by Italians as in the original "Godfather," though Coppola produced, De Niro directed, and Joe Pesci has one of the liveliest on screen moments, but by uptight, stony, patrician WASPs.

Indeed as seen here the world of American intelligence is a privileged and exclusive and deeply conflicted one where Irish, blacks, and Italians need not apply; fathers are absent; privilege grows out of Skull and Bones at Yale, wives are betrayed; sons labor desperately to measure up, and the leading practitioners are ridden with guilt and suspicion. There is no one to trust and nothing to believe in – not family or tradition, or even music – only America, which Edward Wilson says belongs to his class. All others are just visiting.

Into this demoralizing story, damning in its picture of the world of white privilege and of intelligence itself but nonetheless intricately involving and at times genuinely disturbing, are woven some of the major incidents and personalities of the period from from before the Second World War – after which OSS morphed into CIA— till after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion under JFK, from hot war to cold war. You have Philbys and fake Russian turncoats, CIA execs siphoning off money to Switzerland in guise of chocolate boxes, and through it all you have a Cuba mole investigation that smashes Wilson's own family.

Wilson's true penchant was for a deaf girl named Laura (an excellent Tammy Blanchard); and with her is the only time Damon seems to develop human warmth. He is forced to marry the more elevated Margaret Russell (an uncomfortable Angelina Jolie) sister of one of his Skull and Bones colleagues who remains Wilson's Old Boy link to privilege ever after. Traumatic embarrassment, revelation of closest held secrets, and doubt of loyalty are seen as inborn elements of the espionage world. The very qualities that make a good spy, as seen here, also make a man untrustworthy.

Do spies ever have fun? Not much, as seen from the angle of Damon's character. Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), a randy gay pseudo-intellectual who turns and turns again, is naughty, but he pays for it. Another Brit, Arch Cummings, played gamely by Billy Crudup, similarly wears a smile that turns to dust. A good professional of the lower ranks like Staff Sergeant Brocco (John Turturro), Wilson's OSS assistant in England, is a stern sadist whose use of LSD for an interrogation backfires fatally. Nasty sabotages are devised to spoil the left's Latin American agricultural schemes. Big foul-ups like the Bay of Pigs invasion lead to vicious internal purges. And through it all Wilson's son cringes and his wife pines; the marriage had dried up after his six-year absence during WWII; and his imploded selfhood is symbolized by his only hobby, building ships inside bottles. As the film bluntly puts it, the spy-master must choose either family or country; he can't have both. And is it all worth it? The Russian on LSD declares his country's armed might a myth perpetuated by America to justify its ongoing pursuit of world dominance. Is intelligence a needed quantity, or are its organizations self-perpetuating shams? The movie never gives a positive answer. This may be the cruelest picture of the spy game ever put on film.

Many fine actors play small unappealing roles as spy-masters or cold operatives. These include De Niro himself, Alec Baldwin, and William Hurt, all creditable, but unlikely to get Oscar nods for their tightly held back performances. Damon can be accused of the same limitation, though if his Wilson bothers you, he's done his job better than you may think. And young Eddie Redmayne, as Wilson's grown son, has one of the most gut-wrenching roles in a story notable for its devastating picture of the effects of career on family life.

Despite its epic scale and length (it's 160 minutes long), "The Good Shepherd" is more troubling than flashy, more thought-provoking than moving. Ultimately it may be somewhat an artistic failure. The criticism that it is either too long or too short, that it needed to be pared down or expanded to a mini-series, has some merit. But nonetheless as a work that considers big issues and asks big questions, it's one of the more serious and intellectually stimulating mainstream American films of the year.
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