GOOD SHEPHERD, THE (director: Robert De Niro; screenwriter: Eric Roth; cinematographer: Robert Richardson; editor: Tariq Anwar; music: Bruce Fowler/Marcelo Zarvos; cast: Matt Damon (Edward Wilson), Angelina Jolie (Clover/Margaret Russell), William Hurt (Philip Allen), Michael Gambon (Dr. Fredericks), Billy Crudup (Arch Cummings), John Turturro (Ray Brocco), Alec Baldwin (Sam Murach, FBI), Joe Pesci (Joseph Palmi, Mobster), Timothy Hutton (Thomas Wilson), Eddie Redmayne (Edward Wilson, Jr.), Robert De Niro (General Bill Sullivan), Tammy Blanchard (Laura), Keir Dullea (Senator John Russell, Sr.), Martina Gedeck (Hanna Schiller), Mark Ivanir (Valentin Mironov No. 2), Gabriel Macht (John Russell Jr.), Lee Pace (Richard Hayes), John Sessions (Valentin Mironov No. 1/Yuri Modin), Oleg Stefan (Ulysses/Stas Siyanko), Laila Robins (Toddy Allen), Christopher Evan Welch (Photography Technical Officer), Neal Huff (Teletype Operations Officer), Jason Butler Harner (Teletype Communications Officer), Amy Wright (Safe House Operations Officer), Ann Hampton Callaway (1961 Deer Island Singer); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jane Rosenthal/Robert De Niro/James G. Robinson; Universal Pictures; 2006)
“It makes a little noise about what might take place under the radar in a democracy.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Good Shepherd (The title refers to the Bible quote of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”) is Robert DeNiro’s second effort directing after his 1993 “A Bronx Tale.” It’s a fictionalized account of the birth of the CIA from its WWII roots as an outgrowth of the OSS (established in June 1942 to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies; it was organized and headed by General “Wild Bill” Donovan–here called General Sullivan). When the OSS was disbanded at the end of the war, the Central Intelligence Agency was founded and became America’s first permanent peacetime intelligence agency and took up the functions of the OSS. It was set up in 1947 under the National Security Act. The CIA building now located in Langley, Virginia, has the ironical biblical inscription on its entrance — “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” But the CIA is all about covert operations, paranoia as a life staple, lying to feed disinformation and duplicity in relationships, which seem to represent the CIA’s intent better than the noted biblical inscription. It’s credo should be “Trust no one.”
The names have been changed and the characters are composites to prevent any possible law suits. It’s based on Eric Roth’s intelligent script that has been noted by Hollywood insiders for many years as the best script never made into a film. He originally wrote the script for Francis Ford Coppola some 12 years ago. Under De Niro’s competent direction, though it’s weighed down by its arduous slow pace, plodding storytelling, and lengthy close to three hours running time, it still proves itself to be a well-acted and well-researched account of the founding and development of the CIA from World War II through the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.
The film opens on April 21, 1961 with the Bay of Pigs failed attack in Cuba and through flashback takes us through the early days of the CIA. The Bay of Pigs is used as a framing device whereas the film goes into flashback to look back at the life of one of the CIA original operatives and it repeatedly returns to an investigation of what went wrong at the Bay of Pigs as a mole is believed responsible for a security breach and the Washington buzz is that someone will have to take the blame. It has enough workings of cloak and dagger operations to yield some feel of how the spies do business, unfortunately it also comes with a long involved story about the withdrawn and unsympathetic main protagonist played by Matt Damon, a late replacement for Leonardo Di Caprio. Damon is Edmund Wilson, the cold, emotionally reserved to a fault, laconic blueblood operative who is modeled on Yale grad, poet lover (friend of Ezra Pound’s), avid fly-fisherman and orchid-grower (the Wilson character builds model boats in bottles) named James Jesus Angleton. Known as the Kingfisher, he was the long-serving (from 1954 to 1974) shadowy chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s counter-intelligence staff who was eventually forced to resign because of his unwarranted allegations against top officials for being Soviet agents. His tenure was left with a black mark, indicating he did more harm to the agency in the long run than good. Fictionalizing him allows the filmmaker to throw around speculations about the spy’s secret activities which would never be allowed to air otherwise.
Newsreels of the Cuban invasion debacle and of an anxious JFK on TV open the film, and that spurs on an investigation centering around the few top-level spooks who knew the details of the planned invasion–which include Wilson. There’s a flashback to Yale in 1939. That’s when Wilson joins the clandestine Skull and Bones society, a leadership brotherhood of the elite (Both 2004 presidential candidates were members), after playing Little Buttercup in drag while performing in the show “HMS Pinafore” for the Yale drama club. The long drawn out initiation scene points to the necessity of secrecy and trust of the secret society (pictured as similar in structure to the CIA), and those virtues will serve its membership with a sense of entitlement as many will later take on important roles in government.
Young Edmund begins a romance with a deaf co-ed Laura (Tammy Blanchard), but at the same time meets at a Deer Island retreat in the St. Lawrence River his Skull and Bones cronies and the daughter of powerful Senator Russell, Clover (Angelina Jolie), and the sister of one of his Skull and Bones brothers. When Edmund learns she’s pregnant he does the right thing and agrees to a civilized shotgun marriage even though he doesn’t love her. Edmund spends the next six years overseas working for General Sullivan’s (Robert De Niro) OSS and at the end of the war resumes his loveless marriage and begins his tour of duty with the newly founded CIA. All Clover, now called Margaret, can do is pout and suffer as an abandoned woman, as hubby ignores family to be a workaholic superpatriot.
There are numerous characters and some who excelled in their brief stints are: Michael Gambon as a Yale English professor turned spy instructor in London, John Turturro as a rough edged NYC bred wartime military assistant and later CIA underling of Wilson’s, William Hurt as the American spymaster and greedy Senator Philip Allen who has been asked by JFK to have oversight over the CIA, Billy Crudup as Wilson’s blueblood Cambridge grad spy counterpart in Britain, Alec Baldwin as the informative top ranking FBI friend of Wilson’s, Lee Pace as the Skull and Bones man who ends up in high places in the government, Oleg Stefan as Wilson’s friendly but menacing Soviet rival working for the KGB, Eddie Redmayne as Wilson’s conflicted adult son who plans on marrying a black woman and Tim Hutton as Wilson’s suicide father.
Perhaps what Wilson’s service to his country meant and what his attitude best exemplified can be shown in the scene where he meets with a Mafia boss (Joe Pesci) and in a visible display of anger breaks his silent code for the first time in the pic as he blurts out that the country belongs to the WASPs, and everyone else — Italians, Jews, Irish and blacks — are mere visitors. So when we see Wilson in the last scene as a soulless man walking with a stoop to his new office position, we know something about what makes this hollow man tick and through his story what supposedly drove the CIA at its onset. What we ultimately got was a slight peek into the secret workings of the CIA, but in no way did we get a full-scale look at its operation or come away with any damning knowledge of what these scary spooks really do. If you can stand its opaqueness and the somber tone of the dramatization (which will probably turn a lot of mainstream filmgoers off), it makes a little noise about what might take place under the radar in a democracy and how dangerous these characters can be without genuine civilian oversight.
REVIEWED ON 12/24/2006 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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