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Brutal “Good Shepherd” Explores C.I.A.'s Beginnings

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
Brutal “Good Shepherd” Explores C.I.A.'s Beginnings

DVD Release Date:  April 5, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  December 22, 2006 (wide)
Rating:  R (for some violence, sexuality and language)
Genre:  Drama, Romance, Thriller
Run Time: 167 min.
Director:  Robert De Niro
Actors:  Matt Damon, William Hurt, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Lee Pace, Eddie Redmayne, Tim Hutton

“Never trust anyone.”  “The truth shall set you free.” 

These are the two contradictory admonitions that echo throughout director Robert De Niro’s excellent film, “The Good Shepherd.”  But which is actually true?

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is a successful undergraduate at Yale during the 1930s.  Recruited by the ultra-secret Skull and Bones society, Wilson joins but is surprised by the group’s occult-like initiation ceremony – which involves nudity, humiliation and the required revelation of a secret.  Wilson plays along, however, and cinches everyone’s admiration by sharing how he witnessed his father’s suicide then covered it up.

Wilson is then approached by an FBI agent and asked to spy on a favorite professor, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon).  He hesitates, but convinced that Fredericks is fronting a Nazi group, Wilson agrees and proves himself quite adept at the task.  The ensuing revelations force Fredericks out of his job – and lead Wilson straight to Senator Bill Sullivan (De Niro), another Skull and Bones “brother” who offers him an espionage job.

Somehow, the stoic, unemotional Wilson manages to fall in love with another undergraduate (Tammy Blanchard), a soft-spoken deaf woman.  He allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Margaret (Angelina Jolie), sister of a Skull and Bones brother, however.  The one-time incident leaves Margaret pregnant, so they marry, but Wilson immediately accepts orders to serve abroad. 

During the next decade, Wilson grows from a man who is reluctant to betray a friend to one who can watch brutal torture of an innocent man.  He eventually becomes a man to be feared, and gains the admiration of a high-ranking Russian.  As the Cold War rages, moving steadily toward the Bay of Pigs – the film’s focal point – the two play a deadly game of cat and mouse.  Meanwhile, even as Wilson successfully navigates his career, his home life is steadily being eroded by his absence and coldness.

With echoes of “The Godfather,” De Niro’s film revolves around the creation of the C.I.A. in 1947, going back to the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), its forebear, during World War II.  It’s the WASP version of a Mafia film, where characters kill one another without a thought, and like “The Godfather,” it’s brutal – although De Niro handles the violence very tastefully. 

Damon’s character is loosely based on James Jesus Angleton, the legendary but highly controversial director of C.I.A. counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974.  And though stoic, Damon is superb.  His eyes are alive with emotion and his careful gestures convey great depth.  He shows us that even as he succeeds at his job, he’s in a lot of pain.

De Niro’s character is based on “Wild Bill” Donovan, a diabetic who founded the O.S.S.  He is excellent, as always, but it’s in his directing where he shines the most.  What De Niro does especially well is to portray the nuances of this dark, clandestine world – the underbelly of an organization that has been a vital part of American government for the past 60 years.  Certainly, there are echoes of President Bush here, who, like many government leaders (including John Kerry, interestingly enough), is reportedly a Skull and Bones brother.  But it’s not overt.

De Niro’s message, like his characters (which include an all-star cast), are ambiguous.  We’re left to sift through the muddle, asking ourselves questions like whether it’s acceptable to assassinate spies.  It’s tempting to answer “yes,” especially when their revelations cause dozens of deaths, as they did during the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Yet, it also violates every foundation of the democratic ideal that has come to define our country, including the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.  But can a spy really be tried in court? 

Wisely, De Niro refuses to give us any answers, which will make for great discussion fodder.

The costumes and the set dressing are fascinating, along with the fictional glimpse into society’s elitest WASPs.  Screenwriter Eric Roth’s dialogue is also outstanding.  In one conversation, Joe Pesci, a mobster, says, “We Italians have our family.  The Irish have their homeland.  Even the [African-Americans] have their music.  But what do you government people have?”  Wilson replies, “We have the United States of America.  The rest of you are just visiting.”

Look also for superb performances by Billy Crudup as a British agent; William Hurt as the C.I.A. director; and John Turturro as Wilson’s right-hand man.  Jolie also does an excellent job in her role as Wilson’s lonely wife.  In fact, it’s she who utters the real message of the film.  When the “Bonesmen” first meet at their annual retreat, they are called to order and then the meal is blessed.  “Bonesmen first, God second,” Jolie quips.  Later, she says, “Agency first, God second.”

It’s a warning we would all do well to heed.

AUDIENCE:  Adults

DVD EXTRAS:

  • 16 minutes of deleted scenes

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Characters smoke and drink throughout film.  Occasionally, one appears drunk.  A government agent uses LSD as a truth serum during an interrogation
  • Language/Profanity:  A few obscenities and profanities, some strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Film opens with sex scene that is replayed continually throughout film on audiotape and through photos.  Other sexual scenes, viewed from the side; nude men mud-wrestle; a nude man is viewed from the side, laying down, as part of an initiation into a secret society.  Various vague homosexual allusions, an attempted (though extremely discrete) seduction, and dialogue about homosexual affairs.
  • Violence:  One extended scene during which a man is brutally beaten and tortured.  Numerous characters are also killed throughout film, usually off-screen but in emotionally violent ways.  In one, a character is stabbed in the shadows, then is heard screaming in pain.  In another, a character is thrown from an airplane (we later learn that she was pregnant).