The Good Shepherd (2006)
There is so much in and around this movie but long story short it’s not much fun to watch but it is a great movie.
That being said, Matt Damon was better than great. Yes, he comes across incredibly unlikeable and autistic but that was very, very intentional and we’ll get into that later. I thought Angeline Jolie in the supporting role was one of her better acting efforts. I thought their ugly kid growing up into Eddie Redmayne was a refreshing change from everyone being amazing and attractive in big budget movies. The sheer number of famous actors showing up in this movie without bogging it down is amazing.
Okay, so it’s not the origin story of the CIA but it does have a lot of important elements from the history of the CIA’s more exciting capers. Edward Wilson is a quilting of William K. Harvey, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., William E. Colby, and James Jesus Angleton. It’s a tribute to some excellent research on the part of Eric Roth that this movie is so enjoyable if you know even a superficial amount of Agency history. I’m sure I’ve missed things but: the Bay of Pigs, Catholic leanings, liberal arts education, specifically in poetry and as editor of the school magazine, acting as FBI-CIA liaison, the gay Cambridge boys, Wild Bill, “men from the right backgrounds”, Skull and Bones, Angleton’s education in counterintelligence in England, Kim Philby, references to being “lost in reflections”, codename: Mother, Harvey shagging a secretary in Berlin, famous KGB defectors, YURI, 2-way mirror rooms, water boarding, LSD dosing, the military-industrial complex, the lie of the Soviet Cold War threat, secrets in safes saving and ruining careers, “the heart and soul of the CIA”. OSS – SSU – CIG – OSO – CIA. The US and USSR efforts post-WWII. The CIA in Berlin, in South America, in Africa. There’s a lot in there and I can can’t pretend to know or understand all of it. The interesting thing to me is whether this movie is any good to folks who don’t know the history? The effort was made to distill all of it into one man for continuity. The irony is that Bill Harvey, Colby and Angleton did not like each other at all. The other irony is that it has become convenient for the CIA and its supported historians to encourage retreading of stories about it’s more iconic figures as that will draw attention from the thousands of other employees and hundreds of other intelligence efforts during the same time period.
It’s a long 2 hours and 47 minutes.
It’s one of the closest movies to ever approximating the realities of “spies”, at least from that time period.
If you haven’t seen it, you should.
The movie has moments of mundane normalcy mixed with believable unreality and I thought one of the more intense moments was the domestic dispute with Clover when they’re yelling at each other.
So, finally, why was Wilson so sullen, silent and shitty? Well, he is a distillation of the men from this era of intelligence work. He’s a caricature of them. They drank, they smoked, they cheated on their wives, were shitty husbands and fathers, compromised and yet were trusted to do the right thing in absolute secrecy. Everything was need to know and no one could be trusted. Nazis and communists were the ultimate enemy and it was patriotic to fight them no matter why the battles were actually started. Also, spies are glamorous in 90% of the movies and books written about them. Sure they have their interesting foibles and predestined conflict resolution but most of the time we’re supposed to like them. Wilson is the apotheosis of the “men in black” (interesting 5 years later when Matt Damon does The Adjustment Bureau). We’re supposed to realize that they weren’t all great guys. We’re supposed to ask questions about the things that were done in the name of The United States of America, the name of freedom and democracy. The audience is supposed to be left with an unsettling feeling, a bad taste in the mouth, a sense of foreboding wrongness. It’s the other side of the coin, it’s the banality of good, the banality of heroism, the banality of patriotism.
And their epitaph?
They are right in what they say about me. I was weak. A coward. I compromised myself, my honor, my family, my country. I am ashamed of myself. To my wife, I am sorry I have done this to you. To my son, I hope you will grow to be a courageous man. A good husband, a good father. I hope whatever you decide to do, you’ll lead a good full life. I hope whatever your dreams may be, come true.