The Good Shepherd
Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Directed by Robert De Niro
Screenplay by Eric Roth

Call me slow, but I had to see The Good Shepherd twice to figure out what was going on.  Truth to tell, I’m still not entirely sure what this dour, 167-minute CIA drama wants to say.  Its elliptical, time-shuttling presentation purports to be an account of the founding and growth of the Central Intelligence Agency as a WASP redoubt seen through the eyes of a fictional operative, one Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon doing a locked-jaw impression of WASP rectitude).

To tell their story, screenwriter Eric Roth and director Robert De Niro have devised a narrative that holds its secrets almost as closely as the boys at Langley clutch theirs.  The film doles out gen on a stingy need-to-know basis that rarely gives viewers what they need to know.  Why Roth and De Niro thought such stealth necessary is puzzling.  Maybe their Byzantine plot and hefty lacunae constitute an exercise in form following devious content: To dramatize a profession given to manipulative deception, they decided to give the audience firsthand experience by running them down one misleading alley after another.  Or were they just distracting us from the project’s overall shakiness?

The film’s first deceptive feint is Wilson himself, who is not so fictional after all.  He is a composite character based on at least two of the agency’s semifamous—some would say wholly infamous—members, James Jesus Angleton and Richard Bissell.  This being a politically correct project, the film chooses to overlook the men’s achievements and focuses, instead, on their failures.  Through Wilson, we’re reminded that, as the deputy director of counterintelligence, Angleton came under the spell of a Russian defector who led him into a raging obsession with moles in the CIA.  He began to distrust nearly all of his colleagues, at least one director, and, reaching higher, a president or two.  His paranoia eroded CIA morale so thoroughly that operatives stopped recruiting agents from behind the Iron Curtain for fear that Angleton would suspect them of double-dealing on behalf of the enemy.  From Bissell’s dossier, we are shown that, as deputy director of operations, he misjudged the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and failed to cleanse the world of Fidel Castro.  We are left to understand that someone inside the agency tipped Castro off.  This may be true, but, curiously, nothing is said of President John F. Kennedy’s feet suffering hypothermia at the 11th-hour, an affliction the stalwart Commander in Chief relieved by canceling the full air support he had promised the invading exile force.  I wonder, does Roth vote Democratic?

Storytellers have the right to pick and choose as they please, but it seems mean-spirited not to acknowledge that, as an agent in the CIA’s original incarnation, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), Angleton successfully foiled Nazi plans during World War II.  Instead, Wilson-Angleton is shown in Berlin after the war, recruiting Nazi scientists to work for America.  Shocking.  (You may not have known, but all German scientists ipso facto were Nazis.  That’s because they were German.)  Nor do we hear anything of Angleton’s ability to divine Soviet intentions after the war, at least through the 1960’s.  Bissell is similarly served.  For instance, his work in developing the U-2 spyplane does not rate a single reference despite the fact that the high-tech aircraft provided invaluable information, including the news that the Soviets were nowhere near as well armed with missiles as we were in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.  This meant, of course, that JFK’s relentless charges that Eisenhower’s incompetence had left America with an alarming “missile gap” had as much reality as George Bush’s weapons of mass destruction.  Of course, Roth and De Niro might argue that they were not making roman à clef and, therefore, were not under any obligation to replicate the facts of Angleton’s and Bissell’s careers in the character of Wilson.  There is, however, a caveat here.  When one chooses to “borrow” the lives of the principal men involved in historical events, there seems to me an obligation to present them whole.  Yes, fiction is not history, but to come so close to the facts and then veer so widely seems at the very least willfully misleading.  And, while the CIA has much to answer for, keeping mum about its record of protecting American interests is clearly an ideological, rather than dramatic, choice.

Perhaps Roth felt such lapses would be of little consequence, since his film is not, after all, principally concerned with the CIA.  He has taken the agency’s history as a useful occasion to achieve his real purpose of exposing a dangerously corrupting influence in America: WASP entitlement.  This is made clear when, shortly after the failed Bay of Pigs operation, Wilson bribes a member of the Mafia (based on Sam Giancana) with an offer of immunity from prosecution should he agree to arrange Fidel Castro’s assassination.  (By the way, shorn from the final cut is that unimportant detail about Giancana being Kennedy’s goombah pander.)  At once amused and angered by Wilson’s cavalier hypocrisy, the mafioso (Joe Pesci, in a patented  performance) tries to needle the college-boy operative.  “Let me ask you something,” he begins slyly.  “We Italians, we got our families and we got the Church; the Irish, they have their homeland; Jews their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music.  What about you people, Mr. Wilson—what do you have?”

In a level voice, Wilson replies, “We have the United States of America.  The rest of you are just visiting.”  It’s perhaps the one humorous line in this otherwise dankly solemn film, and it is made all the funnier by Damon’s delivery, which is conspicuously uninflected by emotion or irony.  Of course, a self-respecting WASP would never utter such a sentiment in earshot of the unwashed.  But it is dramatically permissible here, because he certainly would have thought it, especially in 1961.

This is where Roth’s real theme lies, and it provides whatever dramatic energy the film possesses.  He has targeted America’s officially unacknowledged ethnic and class divisions.  When the character based on the CIA’s founder, Wild Bill Donovan (played by De Niro in a nicely turned avuncular fashion), invites Wilson to join his fledgling organization after the war, he explains that the agency will enlist only the unquestionably patriotic.  “That means,” he confides, “no Jews, blacks, and very few Catholics.”  The papists get a conditional pass because, he acknowledges with a good-fellow smile, “I’m a Catholic.”  In other words, from its inception, the CIA was an exclusive club, an aristocratic corps composed of intellectuals, amateurs, and dandies hailing from the Ivy League, especially Yale.  In early scenes, Wilson is shown at Yale being inducted into Skull and Bones, the university’s ultrasecret fraternity, which is presented as a veritable seminary of the power elite.  This can hardly be disputed, since it counts among its members our current President and his father, along with such other luminaries as John Kerry and numerous CEOs, big-time lawyers, and even a prestige scientist or two.

Wilson, then, is presented as an individual slated for spying by privilege and experience.  In a word, he grows up to be a natural snitch on behalf of his own class.  That is, after all, what hunting those commies was all about: protecting the wealthy.  As a Yale Bonesman, he’s encouraged to think himself one of those chosen by fate to run the world.  But this august privilege comes at a cost.  If he is to run the world at large, he must allow his own little world to run him.  He becomes completely obedient to the WASP expectations imposed on him by his peers and elders.  His Skull and Bones initiation requires him to mud wrestle with the other initiates naked.  While they do so, a Bonesman pisses on him from the balcony above.  Outraged by this humiliation, Wilson threatens to quit in the middle of his rite of passage but then allows the pisser to talk him out of doing so, thus foreclosing what will be one of his few bids for independence.  The pisser herds him back into the fold by rehearsing all the seductive benefits of membership—most of all, the access to power it will confer.  What a pisser!  Soon afterward, an FBI agent asks him to report on his homosexual literature professor, a man suspected of Nazi sympathies.  Wilson bridles at this: “Are you asking me to become a spy?”

Without missing a beat, the agent plays upon his Protestant sense of duty.  “I’m asking you to be a good citizen.”  Wilson cannot resist this call to arms, and soon, he’s handing over the goods on the professor.  Later, he reluctantly submits to the advances of a senator’s daughter (Angelina Jolie, playing to type) and then finds himself drafted into marrying this reckless wanton when their one encounter leaves her pregnant.

Wilson is portrayed as a passive personality easily manipulated into doing his duty serving the state and his class peers.  He shows virtually no initiative.  Yet we are to believe that he somehow becomes the head of the CIA’s counterintelligence.  This is flatly absurd.  A counterintelligence agent may be half-mad and wholly alcoholic (as Angleton seems to have been), but what he cannot be is a passive conformist, acting only when directed by superiors.  The job is too unpredictable for such anemic self-assertion.  But Roth is intent on making of Wilson, the number-two man in the CIA, a conscienceless, just-follow-orders man: in short, an American version of a Nazi functionary, a faceless automaton coldly plotting, torturing, and murdering for the good of the state.  This is why we are treated to so many shots of Damon, dressed in his tan raincoat and olive-gray fedora, stepping onto his morning bus in Washington, D.C., with a virtual platoon of identically garbed commuters.  Oh, the soul-destroying conformity of it all!  Those hollow WASPs!

Needless to say, the film is also intent on portraying the CIA as an agency gone dangerously rotten because it operates without much, if any, oversight.  At various points, agents sneeringly refer to this concern as typical fodder for editorialists.  How, they rejoin, can you watch the watchdog?  Roth portrays Bill Donovan as a good man who foresaw this difficulty but never solved it.  Wilson also has the makings of a good man, but he is inevitably corrupted by the CIA’s unmonitored world of double-dealing and finds himself behaving heinously, even murderously at times.  Then, after 20 years of suspecting everyone else, he’s left with only one suspect unaccounted for: the fellow he finds in his mirror—a good shepherd by official criteria perhaps, but hardly so measured in the light of his Gospel forerunner.

This irony could have become the centerpiece of a timely study of how good intentions can be perverted when patriotic expedience rules the day.  But Roth is too obsessed by his hatred of the WASP to see straight.  He is more interested in taking revenge on members of the upper class than understanding them.  Well, I suppose WASPs could use a bit of vindictive oversight.  We only have to consider the Bushes, the Cheneys, the Rockefellers . . . but why go on?  Class differences have always been with us.  There is always some group on top trying to make themselves feel superior with their rituals and clubs, their exclusivity and clothes, their sense of entitlement, their insulting noblesse oblige.  Such is the human condition, and, in the long view, it’s endlessly, hopelessly silly.  Spleen such as Roth’s will never change it.

That said, Roth and De Niro’s film is not without merit.  It does well on the personal level, depicting—as Roth put it in an interview—“the disappearance of a soul.”  Wilson submits so completely to the ruthless requirements of his social order that, finally, there is little left of his own person.  Clearly, this happens and deserves our appalled sympathy.  The film also does a fine job of recreating the look and feel of the period in London, Berlin, and Washington.  And Wilson’s college romance with a deaf girl is poign-antly realized.  In retrospect, he comes to realize dimly that, had he not succumbed to the senator’s importunate daughter, a siren of the establishment, he might have had a chance for decency and self-respect with a woman who literally does not listen to the counsels of the entitled world.