Reviews Too Late: The Good Shepherd

by wjw on January 21, 2010

The Good Shepherd (2006) was a pet project for Robert de Niro. He’d been trying to make his fictionalized history of the CIA for ten years, but one director after another was, er, “suddenly unavailable.” (You might think there might be a story there. I’m sure there wasn’t. Ahem. [Looks nervously over shoulder.])

Anyway, in the end de Niro directed it himself, and it must be said that he did a damned good job. Of course the incredible star power of his cast must have made it easier for him.

In this film we have Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, de Niro himself, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, John Turturro, William Hurt, John Pesci, and Angelina Jolie in the thankless but obligatory role of the Wife Who Whines. (“You’re off saving the world for democracy, and leaving me in this enormous Georgetown mansion with millions of dollars and nothing to do!”)

We open with CIA special operations dude Edward Wilson (Damon) listening to the disaster of the Bay of Pigs over the radio. For some reason this makes him flash back to his days in Yale circa 1939, when he played Poor Little Buttercup in an all-male production of HMS Pinafore. So ravishing does he look in drag that he’s immediately tapped for Skull & Bones, the covert society so utterly secret that everyone on the planet knows they run the United States. We are then plunged into the mayhem of a Skull & Bones initiation, which is so brainless, juvenile, and casually cruel that it immediately convinced me that I didn’t want these guys running an ice cream stand, let alone a country. Let alone the world.

(There is naked mud wrestling involved. Since I don’t see the point in male naked mud wrestling I conclude that the Bonesmen really must have thought Matt Damon was a chick.)

Part of the initiation involves the pledge lying naked in a coffin and confessing something embarrassing or disgraceful so that his brothers can blackmail over it the rest of his life. Wilson confesses that he’s kept secret the suicide of his father (who was an admiral and a Bonesman himself).

So right in the opening scenes we discover all that we need to know: that we’re right smack in the middle of the East Coast Establishment— all male, all white, all Republican, all Old Money, all Protestant (with a teeny-tiny democratic sprinkling of Catholics). We find out that our story’s about secret societies, about people pretending to be what they’re not, about keeping and revealing secrets, and that it’s all going to lead to disaster at the Bay of Pigs. (We also discover a surprising amount of cross-dressing among the upper classes, which they seem to be able to keep secret from the rest of us.)

Back in the film’s present, the CIA concludes that the Bay of Pigs failed on account of a mole giving the Cubans the location of the invasion. (Of course the plan itself wasn’t at fault: attacking 225,000 armed Cubans with 1500 lightly-armed exiles couldn’t possibly go wrong.) Our hero discovers that he’s up for the chopping block if he doesn’t find the mole pronto.

Meanwhile, in Flashback Land, we see Matt Damon being asked to spy on one of his professors who’s suspected of being a not-so-closet Nazi; we see his falling for a deaf-mute girl but being forced to marry Angelina Jolie after he accidentally knocks her up (better men have been there before you, Matt); and we see his recruitment for the wartime OSS by a crusty old general (de Niro).

What follows is a pretty darn good history of the CIA, with the serial numbers not very thoroughly filed off. (I wonder why they bothered to sanitize the movie at all.)

I’ll even give you the key. Bill Sullivan is Bill Donovan, Phillip Allen is Allen Dulles, Arch Cummings is Kim Philby, Joseph Palmi is Sam Giancana, Richard Hayes is Richard Helms, Yuri Moldin is Anatoly Golitsin, and Matt Damon’s character is (mostly) Richard Bissell, though there’s a school of thought that he’s also James Jesus Angleton. (Personally, I think Angleton was a much more interesting character.)


The film is exceedingly well made and well directed. There’s symbolism, foreshadowing, a fine music score, well-drawn suspense, fine acting, lots of murky sets, and really brutal and unpleasant violence, and excellent use of sound— I mean, the use of sound was so good that I actually noticed the use of sound, which is not something I usually notice. The movie probably benefitted enormously from the production delays, which allowed fine-tuning of the script.

All the more odd, given the time the filmmakers had to think about it, that the central character remains such a blank. Matt Damon does an excellent job with what he’s given, but he’s not given much. Edward Wilson is such a stick-up-the-ass mannequin that we never find out why he’s in the spy game at all. Is it because he’s a patriot? A romantic? Because he can’t think of anything else to do, or because he’s only doing what’s expected of him? Is he a cold-hearted manipulative prick, or is he just playing one for the CIA?

We find out he’s an arrogant SOB. When he’s trying to recruit a mafia don to kill Castro, the gangster says: “Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the [blacks], they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”

“The United States of America,” Wilson says. “The rest of you are just visiting.”

He’s also described as “a serious son of a bitch with no sense of humor.”

But we never find out what makes him tick. The film commits the cardinal sin of leaving its main character a blank.

We are told that the KGB call Wilson “Mother,” because he cares so much for his agents. But we never see him caring about anything except his family— and even them, not so much.

Rule Number One for characters is: tell us what your character wants. If you don’t, the audience won’t care.

I wasn’t interested in Wilson but I was fascinated by his milieu. I still give it three and a half cyanide capsules— and if you’re interested in how movies are put together, it’s well worth watching just to admire the movie’s structure.

Dave Bishop January 21, 2010 at 10:28 am

I caught this film on UK TV the other night. I was gripped and horrified by it and there were some scenes, like the torture and suicide of the Russian defector, which I will not easily get out of my mind.

I couldn't decide whether the 'blankness' of the Matt Damon character was deliberate or a deficiency in the script/acting. In the end I suppose that one would have to be an emotional blank to cope with all of the horrible murders, betrayals and assorted heinous acts so chillingly depicted.

Maureen McHugh January 22, 2010 at 2:07 am

I was quite taken with the blankness of the character. It worked for me.

Foxessa January 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm

I liked this film very much, though it's been some years since I saw it.

Love, c.

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