Political Film Society - Newsletter #266 - December 23, 2006

December 23, 2006


The Good ShepherdThe Good Shepherd, directed by Robert DeNiro, seeks to portray the early years of the Central Intelligence Agency. The timespan runs from a flashback to the 1919 suicide of the father of Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon), who at the age of nineteen joins Skull & Bones at Yale, to the middle of the Cold War. In 1939, Wilson is recruited into a secret intelligence unit that becomes the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942; he is brought into the reincarnation of the OSS, which was abolished in 1945, as the CIA in 1947. But the critical year is 1961, after the CIA plots to overthrow the new regime of Fidel Castro, when someone’s betrayal dooms the secret Bay of Pigs mission. The quest to find that mole, whom Yalie Senator Philip Allen (played by William Hurt) suspects is Wilson himself, provides the puzzle that integrates a mosaic of subplots. Although DeNiro hoped to film a segment on the American role in the overthrow of Iran’s Mossadegh in 1953, the money ran out on the already lengthy movie. Some characters are composites of actual individuals; Wilson is modeled on CIA agents James Angleton and Richard Bissell. The “good shepherd,” Wilson, is recruited from Skull & Bones by General Bill Sullivan (played by the director), demonstrating that OSS was formed among members of the American elite class who were used to keeping secrets. At a later point in the film, a character points out that Italians and Jews have a loyalty to family, religion, and a long historical tradition but then asks Wilson what loyalty he has, to which the response is “the United States of America.” When Wilson goes to England to join the British counterpart of OSS, he learns that there is a similar reliance on the elite, former students of Cambridge University. The excitement of being a counterspy is tested quite early when Wilson, with information from FBI agent Sam Murach (played by Alec Baldwin), exposes the Nazi sympathies of his English Professor, Dr. Fredericks (played by Michael Gambon), who then is forced to quit. Unaware of his betrayal, Fredericks urges Wilson to get out of OSS while he still has a soul, and then Wilson observes as Fredericks is killed and dumped into a river.

From that point on, Wilson’s soul indeed does leave his body, as he is stonefaced, follows orders unquestioningly, and makes decisions less than ethically but always in the “national interest.” Among the early decisions immediately after World War II is to pardon former Nazis whose scientific expertise will be needed to fight the upcoming war with the Russians. One element in the pursuit of the Cold War involves interrogation of Russians who seek to defect to the American side, but nobody trusts a turncoat, and Wilson’s deputy Ray Brocco (played by John Turturo) carries out an abbreviated torture scene, thereby informing filmviewers that recent revelations about torture by CIA agents in secret prisons is nothing new and has long been taken for granted. A fascinating subplot involves a Russian counterspy who is able to ascertain the weaknesses of CIA agents so that they can be blackmailed into providing information. In the case of Wilson, the weakness is his son (played by Eddie Redmayne), whom he loves deeply, but who can be kidnapped and killed by the Russians whenever they want. However, late in the film, Wilson realizes that even his son is expendable because he had overheard a secret conversation while taking a bath. The Good Shepherd also focuses on Wilson’s spouse, the former Margaret Russell (played by Angelina Jolie), daughter of a Senator, whom he marries only because he made her pregnant, then does not see while in Europe during the war and the postwar German occupation, but has no feeling for her when he returns to Washington. Margaret breaks down at one point, complaining that she does not know what he does for a living, in other words upset that she lacks an emotional relationship with her secretive husband who trusts nobody, but she does not divorce him because Senator’s daughters in the 1950s perceived that they had a higher loyalty to the country and no rights as females. The Good Shepherd skips back and forth in time to explain the amoral mentality of CIA agents who become trapped in an agency that puts the “national interest” above God and family. Director DeNiro hopes to make a sequel, but he is evidently unaware of The Listening, which brings the CIA’s history forward into its Faustian pact with agents of American industrial espionage. Even so, the Political Film Society nominates The Good Shepherd as best film exposé of 2006. MH