Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Good Shepherd

Title: The Good Shepherd
Director: Robert De Niro
Production Company: Universal/Tribeca/Morgan Creek
MPAA Rating: R
Excellence: 3 stars
Summary in a Sentence: The birth of the CIA, with an ending that makes you feel neither safe nor protected.

Perhaps it is helpful to start at the end of this 170 minute movie, with this quote from the first director of the CIA:

"They asked why we never say 'the' in front of CIA. I responded, 'do you put 'the' in front of 'God'?"

One thing I notice when I run into my competitors in the tutoring industry is that I only actually fear the ones who have, like myself, been teachers. The rest are just businessmen who see dollar signs but they don't have the hard-earned know-how behind the educational business that only a teacher knows. And it shows. In this movie, Robert De Niro's hard earned directorial credentials, spawned by being on the other side of the lens so many times, shine through with uncommon clarity. While the story as a whole is not satisfying to the Catholic, or even, the American, mind, De Niro's directing is flawless and a real treat.

The story is about Edward Wilson, the man whose unflinching loyalty to America built the CIA. The story is told in split sequence - the first taking us through Edward's college years and covert formation, the second beginning the day before the Bay of Pigs. For purposes of this review I will artificially create a "part 1" and "part 2" to convey in a coherent sequence what De NIro effortlessly weaves together.

Part I

I've said before that I'll never forgive Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting and the bad Hamlet that it pretended to be. Yet, it seems to me that Damon nails this character of Edward Wilson. There is a steely cold-bloodedness that we see from his very early days.

He is inducted into Skull-and-Bones, and we see some speculative initiation ritual (since we don't actually know what the ritual is) that is what we might expect. As part of his initiation, he is asked to tell one secret to the brotherhood that he has never told anyone. He then relates the story of his father's suicide. Young Edward had been counseled by his father just prior to this event to "never lie to anyone." He hears the gunshot, runs into the room, finds a "note to the family" in his father's hand, stuffs it in his pocket, and tells everyone that it was an accident, thus covering up his father's potential shame. Precocious? At the very least, but the very first example of Edward's quick thinking and instinctive skills for "protection."

The FBI leans on him to expose the professor guiding his thesis. The professor is the chairman of a pro-Nazi cultural group on campus at a particularly tenuous (1938) time. Dismissed from his post due to Wilson's quick detective work, brought on at the behest of the FBI, played by a not-past-his-prime-yet Alec Baldwin, the professor asks Edward why he was betrayed. Wilson responds that he was betrayed first when the professor plagiarized a poem and told Edward that he had composed it himself.

We also see a wonderful young deaf woman, Laura, as his college sweetheart. She seems to be all that Edward would have had he pursued his natural intellectual gifts. The quiet life, in a college town. Safe, protected - yet we know that Edward's gift for protecting the nation through being a steady hand on counterintelligence operations. The irony is that Edward loses her through sexual indiscretion at a Skull-and-Bones retreat when he impregnates the sister of a close friend.

Flash-forward to a marriage scene, and Edward leaving for duty overseas. Recruited by General Bill Sullivan (De Niro's character) for service to the country, Edward is absent from home for 6 years (through the end of WWII). He again is indiscreet sexually and quickly discovers that she is a Soviet agent. In the next scene, we see him standing with his assistant (played extremely well by John Turturro) saying: "I let a stranger in our house." She is executed.

Part II

The mystery behind the failure that the Bay of Pigs represented is far more complicated than can be explained in even a 3 hour movie. As the movie provides us with authentic film clips of Kennedy taking the full blame (for what we know now was a greenlighted Eisenhower project from way back), we see a flurry of activity among the intelligence community to find out how word got out.

The rest of Part II is a detective story, in which an audio tape and pictures are decoded, scrutinized, and examined. It leads Damon to the Congo to discover what he could never have expected, that during a tryst with a lover, his son mentioned a critical part of the operation to her (he had heard this piece of information quite accidentally - he had been in the bathroom when his father had been talking outside with colleagues). She, of course, was a Soviet operative.

The Russians, naturally, want to put the squeeze on Edward for the consequences of Edward Jr.'s actions. Just prior to this revelation, we see Wilson's stoic character have an emotional blow-up with his wife (played by the extremely fragile and feminine - and my, she looks becoming in a dress when she's not busy being Tomb Raider - Angelina Jolie) in which he promises to "protect him" since he has resolved to join the CIA.

While the viewer, at more than 2 hours into the movie at this point, might hesitate for a moment as to what Edward might decide, we know after that hesitation that Edward will decide for America, and against his son.

There are helpful subplots that lead the viewer to this conclusion, 2 of which I will mention:

1.) Edward runs into his old flame, Laura, at an opera in DC. They have a tryst, which, ostensibly, Russian intel exploits by sending photos of the event to his wife. Realizing he is again exposing the agency (and writ large, we are supposed to believe, the country), he resolves to never see her again. Edward is the loyal patriot, and I suppose his sexual indiscretions and disloyalty is not only his tragic flaw (if he is to be our tragic hero), but an ironic one, due to the sort of work he does, which should strongly inform him against indiscretions, if only for the fact that he is under constant surveillance.

2.) Joe Pesci plays a mobster who could prove a valuable asset to the Agency. As they sit to discuss this at Pesci's summer home, Pesci remarks: "We Italians have family and the Church. the Irish have their homeland. The Jews have their traditions. Heck, even the niggers have their music. What do you people have?" Of course, Pesci here is implying "you people" as the WASPy prototype that Wilson exemplifies to a capital T. In proud Bonesmen (and KKK) fashion, Wilson retorts: "We have the United States of America. And the rest of you are just visiting."

Not only does Wilson decline to "protect" his son by cutting a deal with the Russians, he arranges to have Edward Jr.'s lover (who we learn is his fiancee) murdered. In a cruel plot twist, we find out that she was pregnant, and Edward Sr. realizes that his attempt to prevent the marriage has actually resulted in the death of his own grandchild.

There is far more in the story that I'm leaving out, just in the interest of time.

The Good Shepherd

When the Catholic hears this phrase, we think of Our Lord with sheep and lambs. This image is true and Scriptural. De Niro takes this image and stretches it to fit Wilson's phrase in the movie (also in the Pesci dialogue): "We (the Agency) make wars smaller." We see that the Cold War was anything but, and that there was so much "behind the scenes" that we will probably never know.

The movie will leave a Catholic feeling hollow and empty, because we know that no nation should be protected with such blood, lies, and covert operations. De Niro fleshes out the logical consequences that Tony Scott starts to explore in his masterful Spy Game. And it's not pretty.

And that brings us back to the beginning of my review, the end of the movie, and our present time. Lee Pace, who perfectly plays the smug fellow Bonesman, and first Director of the CIA, Richard Hayes, sardonically remarks: "They (Congress) want to look into our closet. And they think we're going to let them." General Sullivan warned earlier in the movie that without civilian oversight, the CIA could grow into a monster. His prediction was true and the questions that I left with were: who watches the watchers?...and ultimately, what are they protecting, at what cost, and for whom?

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