Robert De Niro’s second outing as director pinpoints the ruthless and dogmatic sense of privileged ideology and unscrupulous secrecy that enabled the creation of the CIA. With Eric Roth’s eloquent script as a map of detailed fictionalized events that expand to an epic scale, the film traces Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) as a pokerfaced Yale student with an inscrutable way of choosing his words and not answering questions.
Through a seamless combination of flashbacks, asides, and forward moving action, we are submersed in a concealed world of cold distrust and global espionage. From Edward’s ritual-filled indoctrination into the Skull & Bones club at Yale, where he divulges his father’s unacknowledged suicide, to the tragic solution to an investigation connected to the Bay of Pigs, The Good Shepherd illustrates an origin of American international hegemony that has turned its own country into a laboratory of supervision.
The Good Shepherd is all about tone and the stoic atmosphere of secrets and lies that protects U.S. government agents. It’s about a milieu of insidious self-important people in positions of power who took advantage of their autonomy to create a covert committee of global assassins. Within Edward’s small loop of associates at Yale—he really can’t call anyone his friend—are an exclusive group of people who will be personally scarred or even killed as a result of their association with a character not unlike the cunning shape-shifter Matt Damon played in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Edward’s poetry professor at Yale, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon), is a poof with a bent toward Nazi politics. A brief meeting with FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) sends Edward on a mission to discredit his professor, resulting in Fredericks’ dismissal from Yale. When it’s later revealed that Dr. Fredericks was in on the plan with the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) from the start, the disclosure comes with a caveat to Edward that Dr. Fredericks’ homosexuality has become a grave problem to the agency. And so it goes that every civilian Edward comes into contact with are eventually discovered to be knowingly or unknowingly part of a bigger picture of spying.
It’s telling that Edward dates Laura (Tammy Blanchard) a deaf girl whose hearing aid takes on a fetishistic quality. But Edward is an easy mark for rich girl Margaret “Clover” Russell (Angelina Jolie) who seduces her sitting duck and gets pregnant on their initial sexual encounter. The event forces Edward to abandon Laura, and marry Clover just when OSS agent “Wild Bill” Sullivan (Robert De Niro) sends Edward to serve in London.
Jolie is miscast in a role that needed a different calibration of actress, Jennifer Connelly perhaps, to maneuver the glacial emotional waters Edward and Clover traverse in their detached marriage. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s bold compositions work hand-in-glove with the script to put the audience in the mindset of its paranoid characters.
The Good Shepherd is a movie that stays with you because it removes any sense of carefree liberty you might have felt about America. It brings you up to date with how the CIA helped ruin foreign affairs and make American citizens the hunted. We spy on the enemy, and they are us. MTW