Spying on the CIA

De Niro steps confidently behind the camera

Complaining about Robert De Niro’s declining powers as an actor has long been a sad waste of energy, so it is especially gratifying to see him step behind the camera and display great skill as a director. The Good Shepherd is De Niro’s sophomore film—he directed the moody A Bronx Tale 13 years ago—and this quietly disturbing drama about the genesis of the Central Intelligence Agency is much more than the mere cautionary tale one might expect.

The central conceit of the film is that Yale University’s notorious Skull and Bones society—the secretive über-fraternity whose elite membership has included many captains of industry and the Presidents Bush, father and son—both shaped and supplied many of the privileged young men who took the silver spoon out of their mouth and traded it in for a decoder ring and other accoutrements of the spy trade. Shepherd’s protagonist is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who looks to be a grey man in a grey suit, but whose resemblance to a harmless corporate drone is useful camouflage for a CIA master of counter-intelligence.

At the beginning of the film, Wilson gets whirled into the catastrophic events surrounding America’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, then we flash back to the Yale of 1939, where a young and innocent Wilson aspires to a poetry degree and membership in the Skull and Bones. The film continues to toggle between the tense political events of 1961 and Wilson’s earlier days, starting with his being recruited by an FBI agent to keep an eye on his poetry professor, a secret Nazi sympathizer. (When Wilson asks, “Do you want me to spy?” the glib FBI reply is: “I’m asking you to be a good citizen.”) Wilson proves to be cool under pressure, and he unhesitatingly goes to London when America enters the Second World War. He is now a member of the Organization of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA), dedicated to protecting American interests on the world stage.

Wilson shows an affinity for the black arts of spy versus spy, having the requisite suspicious mind with a love of complexity of detail. He is less successful on the home front, being mired in a loveless marriage to a gorgeous senator’s daughter (Angelina Jolie) who resents how he sacrifices his personal life to serve his country. Wilson is wonderfully portrayed by Damon, who has become a master at interestingly opaque performances and here manages to dominate the screen with his emotional silence. By the time Wilson steps through the looking glass of counter-intelligence, where nothing and no-one can be taken at face value, we understand that, for all his personal idealism, the man has become morally damaged.

One of Shepherd’s recurring plot elements involves ongoing efforts to analyze some murky video footage that contains a clue about which CIA insider betrayed information about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion to the Soviets. It’s a fascinating showcase of forensic spy craft, and a stark reminder of the darkness that can lurk in the hearts of those who step forward to protect their fellow citizens. Near the end of the film Wilson finds himself surrounded by thieves, liars and cynical careerists—any of whom could also be a double agent. The only person that Wilson can truly be himself with is his Soviet counterpart, if only because they both know with absolute certainty not to trust the other.

? ? ? ?

(The Good Shepherd continues

at the Odeon)

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