In the early going of The Good Shepherd, we learn that somebody tipped off Fidel Castro to the Bahia de Cochinos as the place where an exile army, backed by the United States, would land. Thus advised, Fidel crushes the invasion, a loss that has CIA man Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) rather downcast. Who tipped off the bearded one? It will be more than two long hours before viewers find out, but first they must endure political education.
Lesson number one in this film is that all CIA men are manufactured by the Skull and Bones society at Yale, a kind of spook finishing school, where we see them cavorting in skeleton suits, swearing secrecy, and wrestling in the mud while being pissed on by their "brothers." Edward Wilson doesn't like the urine treatment but stays aboard even though he believes the Bonemen are a squad of soulless, backstabbing sellouts. This interminable film, which the Washington Post called "brilliant," gets a lot more wrong, though sometimes in an entertaining way.
Edward Wilson has difficulties with women but manages to knock up the dazzling Clover, played by Angelina Jolie, whose augmented Mick Jagger lips take over the screen. Jolie is the most embarrassing of the all-star cast, with the exception of Alec Baldwin as a hard-assed FBI man.
Edward signs on with the fledgling intelligence service, announced by General Bill Sullivan, played by Robert DeNiro, who also directed. The character is meant to be "Wild Bill" Donovan, prime mover of the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, precursor to the CIA. The eager American spooks are supposed to learn from their more experienced British brothers, but viewers get no sense of Bletchley Park, the nerve center of wartime British intelligence. When Wilson falls for an obvious honey trap with a German interpreter, the Allied spooks blow her brains out, mafia style. One of Wilson's professors, a suspect British agent and homosexual, also comes to sleep with the fishes. One of the Soviet spooks is even a knock-off of Luca Brazzi, though viewers don't see him in action.
A Soviet operative turns out to be the Heroic Russian, a veteran of Stalingrad and frostbite. The lesson here, children, is that unlike the duplicitous Yale pansies, the Soviet spooks actually fought Nazis in combat. In the post-war period, the game is to grab as many German scientists as possible, the obligatory dark hint of a Nazified USA.
The Bonesmen proclaim that some leader in Latin America, an eloquent, gentle peasant, has become a threat. It is made clear that the spooks need to create these threats to keep themselves in business. The CIA, acting through the front company Mayan Coffee, unleashes locusts on the reformer's crops. The Good Shepherd thus attempts to deal with the Guatemala of Jacobo Arbenz. After Cuban revolution, Wilson tries to swing a deal with a mobster, Joseph Palmi, played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly lost three casinos to Fidel Castro. Even over the heavy-handed score comes the sound of a barrel being scraped.
The Guatemala story, like the Bay of Pigs, would be more than enough for any movie but The Good Shepherd doesn't know when to quit. In cinema a clef style, it takes on American counterintelligence boss James Angleton and the Soviet defectors Anatoli Golitsyn and Yuri Nosenko. Defectors debunking defectors remains fascinating stuff, but viewers won't learn much here. They will, however, see CIA men beating and torturing a Soviet defector, who jumps to his death from a window. Torturer-in-chief is the only CIA man of humble, non-Yale, origins, Ray Brocco, played by John Tuturro like a kind of malevolent Joe Friday. The Bonesmen take it all in stride and remain faithful to their roots by shoveling money into Swiss bank accounts and betraying everything and anybody.
So who tipped off Fidel? Turns out it was the loose lips of Wilson's own cherubic son, who also wants to work for the CIA but betrays secrets to a beautiful African temptress who winds up tossed out of an airplane en route to her wedding. See how easily the Boneyard perpetuates itself. It's all in the family.
At the end of his career, Wilson finally opens an envelope which, as a child, he took off his father after his suicide. In this note, Wilson's own father confesses to being a coward and sellout. Wilson burns the letter and moves on. Despite their failures, Wilson and his Bonesmen gang wind up running the CIA. General Sullivan portrays the agency as the de-facto U.S. government, responsible to nobody. As Clover observes, "Agency first, God second."
Among the Hollywood left the CIA has served as a convenient three-letter code for evil. This clumsy film takes the tradition to new lows. Spycraft and espionage remain of interest but there is not much evidence that cinema can convey it in a dramatic way that also does justice to the truth.
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