Ye Shall Not Want

“But Lois, I — wait. What movie is this, again?” Matt Damon goes incognito in The Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd
Dir. Robert De Niro; writ. Eric Roth; feat. Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Tammy Blanchard, Robert De Niro, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Lee Pace, Timothy Hutton (R)
Trust is the currency of all community; the word is printed prominently on our money. A child of privilege, Edward Wilson (not Edwin Wilson, the real CIA spy convicted in 1982 of collusion with Libya), never lacks cash, but though American currency proclaims trust in God, he has difficulty buying into it. Early in his long career in espionage, Wilson is advised never to trust anyone. Expecting and committing treachery, he thrives at the CIA.

The Good Shepherd begins on April 16, 1961, the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion. During the debacle, it becomes clear that the Cuban defenders have been tipped off on exactly what to expect. One of a few CIA officials with inside information, Wilson tries to determine which colleague betrayed the effort to overthrow Fidel Castro. The film crosscuts between Wilson’s continuing investigation and flashbacks to earlier stages in his life. At Yale in 1939, Wilson is initiated into Skull & Bones, a secret society for the educated elite that is a natural recruiting base for clandestine services. Though poetry interests Wilson more than politics, he joins the struggle against fascism. In Europe, he disposes of those who forfeit his trust and, by the end of the war, is offering asylum to fugitive Nazis who can assist in the new confrontation with the Soviets. “Get out while you still can,” urges one of Wilson’s mentors, “while you still believe; while you still have a soul.” But it is already too late. Whether Wilson ever believed in anything, principles do not survive the compromises required to thrive as a covert agent. Can a good shepherd sup on mutton?

Numbed by the suicide of his father, an admiral of questionable loyalties, Matt Damon’s Wilson becomes a cipher, a stolid man who is as taciturn as a turnip. Three attractive women throw themselves at him, and one, a gorgeous socialite named Clover (Jolie), becomes his wife. Though she and Edward Jr. discover that Wilson is a devoted family man, his family is the Agency. Its avuncular founder, General Bill Sullivan (De Niro, in a crisp cameo), is a benign figure who loves his country and urges oversight of his powerful organization, in which idealists have a tendency to become embezzlers, torturers, and traitors. Even a Mafia don is squeamish about collaborating with Wilson.                             

De Niro’s second directorial effort, 13 years after his debut with the engaging coming-of-age drama A Bronx Tale, The Good Shepherd is an ambitious examination of dedication and duplicity. Written by Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider), it is a sumptuously layered work that is more faithful to the complex textures of John le Carré novels than any of their explicit adaptations. A patient film that jumps from year to year and place to place and takes its time about transmitting exquisite echoes among characters and events, The Good Shepherd traces the roguish history of the CIA. Its attention to period detail is meticulous, and its acting ensemble — especially Michael Gambon as a professor with ambiguous loyalty and sexuality, Tammy Blanchard as a deaf lover who hears no ill of Wilson, and John Sessions as a Russian who either defects or dissembles — add sheen to any trenchcoat.

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” said E. M. Forster, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The Good Shepherd shows what it is like to lose country as well as friend.

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