Idol Chatter

Read any number of reviews of “The Good Shepherd,” Robert De Niro’s fascinating look at the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of a character loosely based on former counter-intelligence head James Jesus Angleton, and you will recognize variations on a theme: the corruption and eventual erosion of the soul.

In the opening minutes of the film, we are introduced to CIA agent Edward Wilson, played with brilliant subtlety by Matt Damon, circa 1961, around the time of the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion. Cut to a young Wilson performing a cringe-worthy falsetto as Little Buttercup in “H.M.S. Pinafore” while a student at Yale, reciting original poetry in class, and flirting with the pretty girl across the library table. A romantically stark contrast to the reserved agent to whom we’ve just been introduced. But from the moment Wilson is “tapped” by the secret Skull and Bones society, a sense of malevolence envelopes the film and we see Wilson begin to evolve into an inscrutable cipher. Even though the audience doesn’t know why yet, they sense that Wilson struggles with secrets, that he isn’t comfortable with them, but that he is extremely good at keeping them. And that, it seems to me, is the real crux of the film.

Sure, nearly every lead character Wilson comes in contact with murmurs some truism about the world of espionage, lies, and deceit being ultimately destructive–a destruction illustrated by the juxtaposition of the youthful, smiling Wilson with the silent, studied man he becomes. But, De Niro doesn’t spend enough time developing the younger Wilson, allowing for a more jarring turn from young romantic to enigmatic adult. We never get the feeling that Wilson’s soul is truly being destroyed.

Wilson clearly is not comfortable with many of the things he is asked to do, including heading up the counter-intelligence branch under a Skullsman with whom he’s always had an oddly adversarial relationship. But unlike everyone else in the film–his wife, his son, other agents–Wilson can handle the lies, he can carry the burden of the deceptions. And he knows it. He comes across not as a man driven by stereotypical defintions of patriotism or duty, but by the knowledge that he is necessary.

Perhaps if he had been painted more broadly as a young man boiling over with patriotic zeal, we could understand why he would sacrifice the health of his soul to a career in the CIA. Wilson’s wife, played by Angelina Jolie, asks on several occassions, somewhat jokingly, if he is going off to “save the world,” but if that’s his ambition, he hides that just as well as all the other secrets he carries. On the other hand, that’s what makes the film so three-dimensional: We never get a true sense of Wilson’s motivations. He is simply the titular shepherd, subtly leading others down the correct path in a crooked world; protecting others by keeping secrets, a talent he began perfecting as a child.

“The Good Shepherd” is an extremely complicated movie and to try to elaborate on the plot is not only difficult, but potentially ruinous to those who have not yet seen the film. Suffice it to say that Wilson understands that the verse of the biblical book of John engraved in the Foyer of CIA headquarters–“And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (8:32)–does not apply to him.

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