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December 13, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil

De Niro's excellent Good Shepherd upends spy-movie convention with tragic glimpse at early CIA

He can keep a secret: Matt Damon as CIA counterintelligence czar Edward Wilson in The Good Shepherd (Photos: Andrew Schwartz/Universal Pictures)

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but bear with me: From Bond to Bourne, the appeal of spy movies really is about as bankable a commodity as Hollywood possesses. As with their many source novels, with which readers trade disbelief at page one for a cascade of secrets and irrepressible, irresistible sophistication, the genre relies on one's surrender to political and sexual dynamics so pitched they could only be fantasy. Yet knowledge has such a romance about it; the more exotic its procurement, the more sublime its effect.

I only bring this up because were it not for the impossibly long shadow of the Central Intelligence Agency -- the American espionage superpower whose thicket of roots composes the core of Robert De Niro's excellent The Good Shepherd -- spies, even in their anonymity, might incur the cultural standing of pro athletes or supermodels, exalted breeds whose very names symbolize unknowability. Think of Valerie Plame, the covert agent who, upon her ignominious unmasking in 2003, generally evoked more curiosity than concern. After all, she was CIA; we don't need a personal introduction to understand what those people do. Their reputation for torture, eavesdropping, sabotage, coups d'etat and the occasional assassination (among other nastiness) precedes itself.

Which, to De Niro, anyhow, only reinforces its reliability as the subject of his second directing effort -- and his first since 1993's A Bronx Tale.

"The people in the intelligence world are very smart, interesting people," De Niro told reporters during Good Shepherd interviews last week in New York. "The other part of it -- the deception, or what you hear about in Le Carré and these others -- is fascinating. All I know is what we did in this movie, and I tried to make it as believable as possible. Sometimes I wasn't sure, because there was also a mythology that I was supporting. It's not literally what it was, but... I'm trying to have it as credible -- as real -- as possible."

Misstepping most conspicuously in casting Matt Damon to portray a 20-year swing between title character Edward Wilson's Yale days (credible) and his shoreline comeuppance as the architect of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion (not so much), De Niro's commitment nevertheless informs a strong command of strong material. Researched over years spent globetrotting with ex-CIA operative Milt Bearden, The Good Shepherd shreds spy-movie convention in favor of a more existential view of espionage; Eric Roth's script implies that great spies are made, not born -- an allusion in part to Wilson's incorruptible responsibility to his nation and a direct challenge to a film like Shepherd's origin-story contemporary Casino Royale.

Shepherdess Angelina Jolie with screen son Tommy Nelson

So perhaps it's fitting that Wilson specializes in counterintelligence, hand-picked from Skull and Bones frolic to duty in the Office of Special Services during World War II. A tour in devastated London leaves behind both his pregnant bride Margaret (Angelina Jolie) and his illusions that "special services" can mean anything besides "kill or be killed"; the first casualty on his watch, if not by his hands (a British operative played with subdued flamboyance by Michael Gambon), reveals a gravely cathartic knack for dirty work. With the aid of his right-hand man Brocco (John Turturro), Wilson's idealism accedes to reticence, the OSS morphs to CIA and De Niro traces this personal and professional evolution while periodically jumping forward to the April 1961 Cuban crisis that shatters Wilson's invulnerability.

"In the day and age we live in," said Damon, who picked up his role when first choice Leonardo DiCaprio was unavailable, "where we see the foundations of our democracy being eaten away at by secrets and by things happening in secret -- by a lack of transparency, I should say -- its good that there can be a movie out there where that can be a topic of discussion for people. ... All these guys who came out of Skull and Bones and into OSS and then the formation of the CIA and then got into Iran in '53 and Guatemala in '54? I mean, these guys must felt like it was manifest destiny by the end of the 1950s. They'd never suffered a loss -- they were making the world. And that kind of power is really dangerous, and turned into what happened in Vietnam."

In the intervening years, Wilson's marriage dissolves and his affection-starved teenage son (Eddie Redmayne) follows his dad's trail through Yale, Skull and Bones and ultimately, he hopes, to his own CIA career. A dense Soviet subplot emphasizes the organization's endorsement of torture and the deadly introduction of LSD as truth serum. A supporting cast of William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin and De Niro himself slither through takes, their characters nudging the routinized, rigorous Wilson incrementally closer to paranoia when a mole is discovered to be lurking in Agency ranks.

Yet Damon never really breaks, adopting a steely, Michael Corleone-esque visage that reflects the distance between himself and his family and colleagues. If he didn't look perpetually 18 (De Niro was said to have forbidden aging make-up on the set), his close-ups as shot by ace D.P. Robert Richardson would yield an outpouring of secrets in Wilson's spec-magnified eyes alone. At any rate, De Niro and Roth perform the nifty trick of cultivating Wilson's distrust of everybody and everything around him -- even (or especially) his family -- as an unlikely source of sympathy. Viewers aghast at such stoic, deadly contempt don't necessarily resent having only him to rely on; as he falls under suspicion, you catch yourself demanding it be anybody else.

It's in the execution of such moral complexity that The Good Shepherd boasts its biggest strength; paired with its 160-minute length, open-endedness, a chilly anti-hero and thematic heft -- the secrets, the lies, the sprawling narrative, a devastated family, the global scope, the power plays, the sticking threat of violent death, the tragic, imploded American dream -- at least one person pegs the film as a stylistic heir to an even more concrete cinematic stand-by than any spy flick.

"All I know is what we did in this movie": Damon with Shepherd director/co-star De Niro

"It's like a WASP Godfather, is the way I looked at it and tried to do it," the screenwriter Roth said last week. "I wrote it for Francis Coppola originally. So it's a saga, right? The truth is, these are the people who have run these organizations in this country. It's not like I made it up. It's the same legacy, from the President now -- whom I didn't know about when I wrote it 12 years ago -- and the Allen Dulleses of the world, the James Angletons: the people who ran the agency. In other words, this is just accuracy. ... This was sort of their private club, and this is how they looked at it."

A club that continues to this day more powerfully than ever, of course, thus arousing the query that after Shepherd's climactic Bay of Pigs defeat, what's another 45 years in three hours among friends? Too much, I think: The anti-Communist mythology of the Cuban Missile Crisis is fused to contemporary Americans' DNA; the Cold War provided an anomic blueprint for generations that followed, while 9/11 renewed its 99-year lease. Even the turbulent decades played out here occasionally feel attenuated and redundant.

But Jolie, who has done humanitarian work in third-world nations where the CIA has long, sordid histories (Cambodia, anyone?), implied during an interview there may be very well an angle worth following in The Good Shepherd, Part II or The Better Shepherd or whatever Roth and De Niro decide to call it.

"I've never been clearly aware of something specific," she told The Reeler. "But I think certainly I've witnessed our foreign policy, and I've witnessed the change in the perception of America's foreign policy in the last few years. Every trip I take, the feel has been different because of the changes we have made. And I'm sure the CIA has had a hand in that."

For example?

"About five years ago, when I started traveling, and I would say I was American?" Jolie said. "Everybody was very, very excited and thought it was the greatest thing in the world -- the greatest place in the world. Now there's a certain... " She paused, planned her words. "You feel cautious; you feel like people are not so joyful about that. They question my country, or people say things like, 'It's extraordinary you're here, because you're American.' And that's not true for the American people; American people are very caring and generous people. That's been proven with the work that every individual household has done abroad, and the charity they do and who we are as a people. But that's not what our government has represented in the last few years, so I think it's been difficult to go to places abroad and just see that ..."

Jolie paused again and smiled That Smile. "Well, I think we all know exactly what I'm saying."



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Comments (1)

For the rest of this week, there is a play (roughly) on this subject by Mac Wellman running at The Flea in Tribeca.

link

It deals with our early OSS/CIA operations in Indochina, when Viet Nam might have turned out to be an ally.

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