The Good Shepherd

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


        “The Good Shepherd” is engrossing, absorbing, and compelling; it is also extremely demanding as it wanders through the history of CIA. Present time on screen is 1961, the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion. From there it goes back to postwar Yale where CIA recruited many of its early officers, often from the ranks of Yale’s prestigious senior secret society, Skull and Bones. The film’s portrayal of the senior society, drawn probably from the musings of the disaffected, seems unlikely to have been endured by the national leaders who have emerged from it.

        This is a thinker’s action movie. No chases here, no explosions, just the workings of CIA at the highest level just after its founding in 1947. The agency was based on the “need to know principle” – that because no one can be trusted, the whole story of any project is never known to anyone. The history of the agency is replete with moles and double agents like British agent Kim Philby who spied for the Russians for 30 years and ended his career as a trusted MI-5 man in CIA Washington. In the ultimate insult, he had lunch every week with James Jesus Angleton, head of CIA’s covert operations.

        The characters in the movie are amalgams, a little bit here, a little there. Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson, serious and silent, is based firmly on Angleton, the legendary and controversial figure who became obsessed with finding the mole in the agency. Code named “Mother,” as Angleton was, he is married to Clover Russell (Angelina Jolie). Clover was the actual name of the wife of CIA chief Allen Dulles, and that’s the little bit here, little bit there part of this movie. Jolie is excellent, though it is impossible to imagine her chatting up other young mothers on a suburban lawn.

        Matt Damon shows us the awful toll exacted on the men of this era who were completely absorbed by their work without being able to talk about it to anyone. Robert De Niro understates Wild Bill Donovan (called Bill Sullivan here), the OSS man who uses Ivy League recruits to convert his war time intelligence group into the post war CIA.

        As good as the movie is, it is probably director De Niro’s fault that the story lacks the momentum that might spring from a strong narrative but can’t build from scattered fragments. He gets away with it because the history of the CIA is rich with incident, both successful and outrageous. The case of a doubted Russian defector is firmly rooted in ugly reality. Another soviet defector accuses CIA of keeping the myth of Russian strength alive in order to feed our military/industrial complex, a sentiment Dwight Eisenhower echoed in his farewell speech. You will strain your brain just trying to match the pieces of this intelligence puzzle to history. This is what covert intelligence work is about and this movie should be Part I of many.
 


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