Jesus said "...you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32
This quote is also found on the wall at the entrance to the CIA in Langley, Virginia. At this location the subtext should read: Thou shalt not bear false witness, unless it be for the sake of national security which, in turn, shall imprison your soul. (My quote, except for some help from other Biblical lines which you may recognize.)
This is why Matt Damon seldom smiles as the character, Edward Wilson in "The Good Shepherd." The one scene I clearly remember his smiling as Edward, is when he's looking into the eyes of a woman who has truly fallen in love with him. He looks like a free man in the woman's shining gaze.
Edward Wilson is a fictitious person patterned, mostly, after a real man called James Jesus Angleton who was born in Boise, Idaho in 1917. Angleton's father served with General John Pershing. His mother, an alien, was from an elite Mexican family. The Wilson character is less sharply defined in the film, except for the same devotion to duty and country, as well as doing what's expected of him; as was the real James Angleton: probably the most significant name in US counterintelligence.
Robert De Niro has directed his second film here and is seen in a strong cameo as the real Wild Bill Donovan, who brought the CIA into existence as the U.S. was moving on from WW II and into the Cold War with Soviet Russia. Screenwriter Eric Roth has given Donovan the name General Bill Sullivan.
But it's the name, De Niro which has brought many well-known and fine actors to the set: Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, Billy Crudup, Keir Dullea, Timothy Hutton and the woman who makes Damon smile: Tammy Blanchard. She delivers, walking away, a great supporting performance. Other less-known actors are also on board for top-notch work under the veteran hand of De Niro.
"The Good Shepherd" gets closer to three hours running-time than it should, albeit I never felt bored by what I was seeing. It just seemed that a very good film had more story for me to see and whatever else came, was engaging and revelatory. I think that's what well-written scripts are supposed to do.
Roth's is well-calculated, too; giving the maximum bang for the buck in terms of how the movie reveals itself. It's nuanced and moves quickly and subtly---backward and forward in time---from the various government projects Wilson is handling, with the center of the story's gravity during the time of the 1961 Bays of Pigs debacle.
Few real, famous people are mentioned in the script, except for President Eisenhower and President Kennedy, although many familiar names of government officials, on research, are historically welded to the real events covered in the film.
To bring the story down to a human level, familial concerns are woven into the larger-than-life material. The irony of family responsibility over and against duty to country takes a heavy toll, especially in the marriage of Wilson and his privileged wife, Clover (Jolie). It's much like Tony Soprano ordering the "whacking" of some Jersey street thug for not paying off a loan, then "T" worrying about how daughter, Meadow is doing at her new job working at a legal aide office over in Manhattan.
Joe Pesci got the nod for a cameo Mafioso (Joseph Palmi) in "The Good Shepherd." As Wilson (a Skull and Bones member) is threatening to deport Palmi unless CIA gets help from the mobster with some of its Cuban problems, Palmi says to Wilson, "Well, we Italians have our families and our church; the Jews have their Tradition; and even the (N-Word)'s got their music. What have people like you got, boy?" Wilson replies without missing a beat: "The United States of America. And, you're just visiting!"
When giving a Soviet spy a one-dollar bill in the Smithsonian Space Museum so the Russian can buy a souvenir to take back to his granddaughter in Moscow, Wilson's rhetoric takes on a different tone. Pressing the bill into the Russian's hand, Wilson says, "Here's a gift from the United States government. You see, a cardinal rule of a democracy is to be generous!"
This film only scratches the surface of the career of the main character. Robert De Niro, in one of his many and unusual TV interviews regarding this picture, claims there's, at least, a sequel to it, if he can get the money. I have a feeling, after scouting "ahead" on the "hero" of this piece, that the more contemporary Angleton's story becomes, if it's put yet to another film, will make for more controversy than some might want. But, hey! What sells tickets better?
"The Good Shepherd" is pregnant with weight and consequence, and finally gives us a glimpse at what the real spy, James Jesus Angleton called, the "wilderness of mirrors,"* through which those in counterintelligence must navigate, seemingly free.
Showtimes at Yahoo Movies-Tulsa.
Now playing at RiverWalk Movies in Jenks.
Gary Chew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.