One of the most disturbing elements in the rich and complicated new film, The Good Shepherd, is its attention to a well known history. Though it engages the viewer like a subtle, absorbing novel, the movie often resembles a documentary in its fictionalized representation of that history through the experiences of one man, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who rises from new recruit in the wartime Office of Strategic Services to a high level in the postwar Central Intelligence Agency. That ostensibly simple progress establishes the foundation for a highly nuanced examination of a number of subjects, including the American intelligence services, the paradoxically destructive force of patriotism, the ambiguities of loyalty and treachery, and the influence of class, breeding, and privilege on the nation's foreign policy for more than a half a century.
Within its protagonist's story, the movie provides considerable insight into the existence and meaning of secret societies, including Yale's Skull and Bones, the CIA itself, and even the Mafia, all of them exerting a strong influence on the fate of the nation. As The Good Shepherd demonstrates, the CIA originates somehow in the souls of wealthy and privileged WASPS, who in effect run the country according to their patriotic fidelity to an abstraction they call America. Their perception of any threat to that concept not only leads to the creation of the CIA, but also to the protracted and, the movie suggests, entirely unnecessary conflict of the Cold War.
The picture revolves around the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but moves back and forth in time, covering important events in Edward Wilson's life, from his days at Yale, where he is "tapped" by Skull and Bones, persuaded to spy on a professor, and recruited by the OSS to serve in England during the war. There he learns the tactics of counterespionage from gentlemanly British experts in manipulation, coercion, and treachery (perfidious Albion, indeed). Those lessons assist him well after the war in his career in counterespionage with the new agency, very much an Anglophile organization, ultimately leading him to renounce family, friends, and in effect, all that we consider humanity in the service of the nation.
The numerous characters, the constant shifts in chronology, and the various, apparently disconnected plot lines all lead up to and away from a grainy reel of surveillance film that appears to show the betrayal of the Bay of Pigs invasion in a moment of sexual intimacy between two lovers. The careful analysis of that footage, fascinating in itself, reveals the identity of the couple and thus the source of the leak, a discovery that leads to the most shocking act in a career dedicated to eavesdropping, lying, and double crossing. Edward Wilson's final professional and personal gesture in the film enables him to triumph over all the traitors he uncovers, including a number within his own agency, and achieve great success, a hollow and ambiguous victory.
Within its story of a particular individual and the context of history, The Good Shepherd examines the values and customs of the great WASP aristocracy that traditionally dominates the inner circles of American government. Its depiction of the rituals of Skull and Bones, in particular, shows that aristocracy at work and play, an appalling collection of wealthy elitists who boast about their birthright of power and privilege and spend a good deal of their leisure time in decidedly creepy amusements like nude wrestling and transvestism. The film also shows the paranoia that paralyzed the CIA when James Angleton, the officer upon whom Matt Damon's character is based, purged the agency of many people he suspected of treason, creating a nearly permanent atmosphere of falsehood and doubt.
Although the part demands that his repressed, emotionally stunted character exhibit virtually no discernible reaction to the extraordinary events that he observes and precipitates, Matt Damon exaggerates his sustained impassivity. His marmoreal countenance remains unchanged whether he supervises the torture of a Russian defector or suffers Angelina Jolie nibbling on his ear, and never shows the passage of time from the late 1930s to the 1960s, as if he were the one constant in a dubious and unstable world, the world he made, the world we inhabit.
The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.