The Good Shepherd (2006)

Director: Robert De Niro

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By Roderick Heath

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) seems a nondescript Washington public servant, to the extent of taking the crowded bus to work. Yet he is a CIA boss who finds his name at the top of a short list of suspected traitors after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fails. Edward prods friends within and without the Agency for a guide through the menacing tangle of hinted threats and accusations. He receives in the post a dim photograph of a pair of lovers in a hotel room accompanied by an indistinct recording of their conversation, and takes these to the CIA techies to have their secrets extracted.

During the process of this painstaking teasing out of information, Edward muses on his life and career in the Agency. He was a Yale student in 1939 and belonged to the world’s least-secret secret society, the Skull and Bones. The personal secret he gave to them as his pledge was that his father, a prospective Secretary of the Navy, killed himself after accusations of disloyalty. Edward stole away the suicide note before his family could find it. The Skull and Bones club is a statement of the sons of the WASP establishment, ex- and current members congregating for familial feasts and celebrations that happen to be a nexus of power.

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Edward is an English major, with a gorgeous, deaf girlfriend, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), but who has been propositioned repeatedly by his professor, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon). He is approached by an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin) to spy on Fredericks, who has been organising a pro-Nazi Germany club amongst the students. Edward’s actions get Fredericks fired. At one of the Skull and Bones congregations, Edward finds himself the object of provocative desire for Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), nicknamed Clover, sister of Edward’s friend and sponsor in the society, John (Gabriel Macht). Clover pushes herself on restrained, remote Edward. He is soon forced to abandon Laura and marry the pregnant Clover.

A dark, densely woven tapestry, The Good Shepherd is not a crowd-pleaser. It builds a mood of quiet, sustained dread. Obviously influenced by John Le Carré’s George Smiley series, it is based loosely on the life the legendary James Jesus Angleton, who also inspired the title character of Norman Mailer’s underrated epic novel Harlot’s Ghost. Like Le Carre’s approach, De Niro’s film, written by Eric Roth and a pet project for both men for many years, analyses the type of men who become spies and finds them light years removed from James Bond.

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The most successful are those impervious to emotional attachment. Edward is taught a series of brutal lessons in his world. The first is that you don’t know who your friends are. When Edward is recruited as an OSS agent and sent to London during the Blitz, he finds his boss is Fredericks, whose anti-Nazi trawling operation Edward ruined. You also don’t know who your enemies are. Edward is asked by slick Cambridge creep Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup) to help eliminate Fredericks because his “democratic” homosexuality makes him ripe for leaks. Fredericks is beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. After the war, stationed in Berlin, Edward has an affair with a German secretary, Hanna (Martina Gedeck), who he realises is a Soviet mole. She is promptly assassinated. Returning home, Edward finds Clover and his son are virtual strangers.

A recurring note is that all of Edward’s sexual encounters are bitter jokes—with Laura, who chickens out of their first night together; with Clover; with Hanna; with Laura again many years later, a one-night tryst that is photographed. The photos are sent to Clover, whose rage makes an introverted, professionally paranoid man even more so. Sex, the surrendering of control, is the weakest link in the security chain. It destroys Fredericks and others. Yet Edward is seen first as a young man performing as Buttercup in a collegiate performance of HMS Pinafore; ironically, it’s the freest and easiest he ever seems, the act of hiding in gender ambiguity a short-lived liberation.

Edward’s hobby is constructing model ships in bottles, emphasising his kind’s attempts to bottle a complex world in a singler jar of truth. Edward is one of the most inscrutable heroes ever portrayed in a major film. He is neither a ready hero, nor an anti-hero acting out our darker fantasies, nor even a case study we can feel superior to. He is instead a truly tragic protagonist. His implacable façade conceals a lifelong, desperate attempt to prove his character. His motives are unclear even to him. He has kept his father’s suicide note, which may or may not confirm his betrayal, but never read it. So, an unanswered anxiety drives Edward to work in a field demanding tests to his own nature that his father failed, knowing that to swerve off the path is to court self-destruction. He becomes a patriot, but consumes the life force of everyone who loves him, from Fredericks, to his son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), who, in trying to connect with his remote father, joins the CIA, too.

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Around Edward’s story swirls the tumultuous history of the CIA. Edward is courted by Bill Sullivan (De Niro), who is assembling the Agency with a plan that only irreproachable WASP scions, as the most “trustworthy” of Americans, shall run the Agency. The Agency takes down leftist South American politicians and plays the long game with the KGB. In Berlin, Edward encountered a Russian opposite (Oleg Shtefanko), code-named “Ulysses,” who becomes his chief adversary. A defector, Mironov (John Sessions), joins the CIA circle, promising information about Ulysses; as a joke, he is given a copy of James Joyce’s novel. Yet another defector (Mark Ivanir) turns up, claiming, despite Brocco’s torture, that he is the real Mironov, and that the other man is a plant of Ulysses’ before throwing himself out the window to his death.

The Good Shepherd highlights the conflicted nature of the CIA as an historical force. “I see this as America’s eyes and ears; I don’t want it to become its heart and soul,” Sullivan muses, acknowledging the necessity of the organisation whilst regretting that necessity. Edward and the other chiefs consciously ignore the second Mironov’s warnings because he told them what they don’t want to hear—that they are dupes and that they need to inflate the threat of the ailing Soviet Union to justify their existence. One senior CIA honcho, Phillip Allen (William Hurt), enjoys making silken threats and exploits his position for financial gain.

The film is also a satire on the high WASP echelon of the United States, on how they put themselves and their agendas first and foremost. At one point, Edward is asked to liaise with a gangster, Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci), exiled from Cuba by the Castro revolution. Palmi prods Edward in wanting to understand the mentality of his class:

“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 niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”

“The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting,” Wilson replies, not smugly, but as if it’s the accumulation of a long meditation.

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The film is a gradual accumulation of details that point to the identity of the mysterious lovers in the recording and photo: Edward’s his own son and his African, Soviet-employed girlfriend Miriam (Liya Kebede), the ultimate joke on Edward’s sexless, white-bread patriotism. Edward Jr. leaked the Bay of Pigs invasion. Worse still, Ulysses has stage-managed this affair—except that Edward and the girl are truly in love, and want to marry. Ulysses promises to protect them if Edward becomes a double-agent. Edward refuses and seems to succeed in talking Ulysses into letting the young couple go their merry way. But Miriam is thrown out of an airplane on her way to join Edward Jr., leaving him distraught and Clover crying out, “What have you done?”

Edward stages a vengeful house cleaning, unmasking Mironov as Ulysses’ mole (he keeps his microfilm in the spine of the Joyce novel) and forcing Allen to quit by threatening him with evidence of pilfering. These actions finally stake his claim to untouchable status in the Agency, having proven his honesty with the most bitter of tests. Edward finally opens his father’s note, which confirms he was a traitor, and then burns it. He has avoided becoming his father and destroying himself, but only by destroying almost everyone around him.

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It’s a superb performance by Damon, a logical role for an actor who specialises in playing men whose great talents and capacities are at odds with their surface blandness. Damon holds our attention, like Alec Guinness did with Smiley, by playing a man who thinks much and says little. There’s an amusing edge to casting the “world’s sexiest man” as an emotional and sexual enigma, as well as casting perennial sexiest woman Jolie as his wife. Introduced as the vulpine, voracious maneater that is Jolie’s own stock persona, she finds herself exiled to a life of repression, depression, and humiliation in this pre-feminist period, her wits and abilities degraded and ignored by a man who can’t afford to open up to her. The supporting cast, from Gambon to Blanchard to Crudup offer superlative work.

De Niro’s direction is perhaps the most ordinary element of the film. It does possess the same intense concentration that marks his best performances, if none of his concussive flair. He doesn’t have the skill for revealing detail and procedure that, say, David Fincher brought to Zodiac. He settles for fiercely controlling pace and mood, and whilst his film occasionally bogs in dour confusion, it never becomes facile. If there are facile points, it’s in some silly symbolism in Roth’s otherwise excellent script, like deaf Laura being the true love of a man who listens in for a living. Some subplots, like those of Cummings, a Kim Philby stand-in, and Allen, are opaque and brief.

Nonetheless, The Good Shepherd is a hypnotic and haunting film with something to say. It wraps up in the early ’60s, Edward wandering the halls of the new Langley headquarters, a lonely man in a sterile environment, revealing this as a fin de siecle for an era and a sensibility, the ossification of American power and a certain kind of family and social life. The lack of a heroic flash-forward to the end of the Cold War emphasises that this work is never finished, that the glorious gettin’ up morning never comes. l

  • Armando spoke:
    19th/03/2008 to 11:31 pm

    Rod, that’s was a great write up. I just watched the movie and love it. You answered a lot of questions I wondered about.
    Thanks!
    Armando
    Chicago IL

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/03/2008 to 8:24 pm

    Hey, Armando. Glad the review was of help, and that you enjoyed the film. It’s one of the few movies I’ve viewed lately where I had to sit down and think for a while about what I’d seen, and found it added up – and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a film.

  • John Peterson spoke:
    21st/02/2009 to 8:27 pm

    I’d love to see a review of The Big Sleep by you.

  • J.D. spoke:
    4th/11/2014 to 11:35 am

    Fantastic review, Rod. I’ve been thinking about this film lately and it’s a shame it flopped at the box office as I’d love to see De Niro continue on with Edward in the ’60s and ’70s.

    Damon is so good in this film, delivering a very internalized performance. I would say that along with THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY this is among is finest performances to date. As you rightly point out, he plays a tragic character and one wonders what Edward’s life would’ve been like if he had stayed with Laura instead of playing it safe and hooking up with Clover marrying into the power structure of U.S. society. In those early scenes with Laura, Edward looks happy, but after he makes his choice it seems to be one that haunts him for the rest of the film (and life?).

    Yer right, De Niro’s direction isn’t showy, but I think that is in keeping in tone with the film’s protagonist. That being said, Robert Richardson does wonders with lighting and the framing is exquisite. In some ways this felt like a more sedate Oliver Stone film.

  • Roderick spoke:
    10th/11/2014 to 10:33 am

    Hi J.D. Way to unearth this old review. Very much an essential Damon performance. I know what you mean about it feeling like a restrained Stone film, and I feel now this actually came closer to capturing the mood of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy more than the last adaptation did.

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