By Jefferson Flanders

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a compelling and serious film about the Central Intelligence Agency?

Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), recently released on DVD, like so many other formulaic movie treatments of the CIA, recycles the same tired old anti-Langley themes. It’s a shame, for DeNiro has assembled a talented cast and he focuses the movie on a fascinating time for America’s new intelligence agency, the period from the CIA’s post-World War II inception to the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

What greatly hampers The Good Shepherd is the apparent unwillingness by DeNiro, or his screenwriter, Eric Roth, to take seriously the reasons for the creation of the CIA: the clear and present danger represented by a Stalinist Soviet Union, and the need—first enunciated by Harry S Truman—for accurate intelligence on its expansionist designs. Roth’s flat screenplay is a puzzlement—he is credited with scripting both Munich and Forrest Gump and so he knows how to tell a story and how to deal with ambiguity, but he does neither in The Good Shepherd.

CIA fantasies

That Hollywood has a CIA problem shouldn’t come as a surprise. With few exceptions American producers, directors, and screenwriters hold left-of-center political views; consequently, it seems, they regard the CIA as an unnecessary and distasteful Cold War legacy, or a villainous organization willing to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to insure American hegemony in the world.

Other recent films from the “Left Coast” reflect those prejudices: see, for example, the conspiracy-fueled Syriana (2005) where the CIA blithely assassinates a Middle Eastern leader via a Predator-drone-delivered missile, or any of the recent Robert Ludlum-inspired Jason Bourne films where CIA executives calmly approve the murder of apostate agents. (The notion that the CIA has the proverbial “license to kill” ignores the history of the past 15 or 20 years, where any CIA covert action has required the clearance of battalions of government lawyers and presidential approval). True, these are thrillers, not bound to reality, but their negative portrayal of the CIA speaks to the Hollywood mindset.

Despite DeNiro’s comments in some PR interviews that he wanted to offer a more nuanced history of the CIA, the underlying negative point-of-view behind these other “above-the-law” CIA fantasies also informs The Good Shepherd. That is artistically problematic, however, insuring that what reaches the screen is ideologically-driven and clichéd (so much so that I kept looking for an appearance by Chris Cooper, Hollywood’s favorite all-American CIA/military villain). It certainly doesn’t make for anywhere near as authentic or entertaining art as would a movie with more ambiguity and an appreciation for the moral dilemmas of espionage. (Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t all wrong when he counseled: “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”)

What goes missing in is a sense of why the CIA exists, and why people are drawn to work for such an organization (patriotism? thrills? the intellectual challenge? a mixture of these motives?). We never get a sense of the conflicts that arise in operating an intelligence agency in an open society that prizes the rule of law. The nature of the Soviet threat is never explored, nor the historical debate over the best way of addressing Soviet gambits in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and whether containment would prove effective as a strategy or more aggressive “roll back” tactics should be employed.

The CIA as social club

Instead, in The Good Shepherd we get the CIA as Yale’s Skull and Bones writ large, a secret society aimed at defending establishment male privilege (or so the movie suggests). While it’s true that the OSS, and then the CIA, had Ivy League roots, the history of the period suggests that the men and women attracted to the CIA—especially the adventurers drawn to covert work—saw themselves as enlisting in an ideological struggle against Communism, not joining a post-college social club.

Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, the The Good Shepherd’s repressed upper crust protagonist, as such a cipher that we can never quite understand what motivates or drives him. The tag-line for the movie proclaims, “Edward Wilson believed in America, and he would sacrifice everything he loved to protect it,” but it’s never clear that Wilson believes in much of anything, let alone America, or that he is capable of love. Damon’s emotionless performance made me long for a voice-over narration for some sense of the character’s interior life—not a good sign for a movie. No doubt the idea of Wilson as a bloodless WASP was drawn from the real-life CIA mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, but centering The Good Shepherd on this humorless workaholic robs the movie of any humanity.

The Good Shepherd explores the CIA’s misguided role in 1950s coups in Latin America and elsewhere, the continuing espionage battles with the KGB, and the agency’s Kennedy-inspired early 1960s obsession with Cuba. There’s no context to this, however, no Stalin, Beria, Mao, Korean War, Berlin Wall or Hungarian revolution, and the screenplay suggests that the CIA remains more interested in protecting American business interests in Cuba and Latin America than in countering Soviet aggression.

The CIA’s role in gathering and analyzing intelligence is slighted (no surprise) in favor of covert skulduggery. Among American films, perhaps only Patriot Games (1992) has tried to capture the pain-staking work of solving the intelligence puzzle that is at the heart of what spy agencies do.

That those who work for the CIA are also corrupt or motivated by elitism is another recurring theme in The Good Shepherd. Thus we have a Mafia capo, Joseph Palmi, questioning Wilson/Damon about his world view in this exchange:

Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland; Jews, their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have? Wilson: The United States of America…and the rest of you are just visiting.

In this ham-handed bit of WASP-bashing we are meant to see that Wilson’s patriotism (if it can be called that) is sparked solely by elitism. But does DeNiro really want us to conclude that the Cold War was about defending the right to exclude Italians, Irish, Jews, and blacks from establishment country clubs? And weren’t the most aggressive “clients” of the CIA, the ones pushing for assassinations and muscular covert action —Jack and Bobby Kennedy—Irish Catholics?

Flirting with Bruckheimerism

In an attempt to balance The Good Shepherd‘s thinly-veiled ideology with entertainment, DeNiro flirts with elements of Bruckheimerism—that Hollywood penchant for grand-scale blockbusters filled with violence and car-chases aimed at 17-year-old suburban boys (after the producer Jerry Bruckheimer). While DeNiro does not employ much “bang-bang” in The Good Shepherd (it actually might have given the film some needed zip), he does aspire for something grand—the PR for the film calls it “an epic drama.” (Some reports have suggested DeNiro sees the potential for a Godfather-like series of films on the CIA).

This fascination with the epic is yet another mistake—the characters get lost in the narrative sweep, and the underlying family drama seems manufactured and contrived. To provide some structure to the film, DeNiro resorts to popping up every 20 minutes as the character Bill Sullivan to provide us an awkward explanation for the latest turn in CIA history.

Spy stories don’t translate well into epics. Some of the better espionage films have been quiet, focused on a simple tale. Think of The Third Man (1949), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the BBC mini-series based on John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), The Conversation (1974), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Patriot Games (1992), and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s much-under-rated Munich (2005), which was criticized by some for the very ambiguity that, laudably, challenged the viewer’s pre-conceptions.

The best spots in The Good Shepherd are the quieter parts of the film. Tammy Blanchard is marvelous as Wilson’s college love interest, the deaf student Laura; Oleg Stefan makes a believable KGB foil; and Michael Gambon’s British agent/university don adds some needed color. When DeNiro narrows his directorial focus, and gives the actors some space and time, The Good Shepherd begins to intrigue. It makes you wish that DeNiro had chosen to adapt Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper, which covers the same historical territory but in a much more personal way, or even Ward Just’s post 9/11 novel Forgetfulness.

Don’t expect Hollywood to change the formula anytime in the near future. This summer Turner Network Television will broadcast The Company, a series based on the epic—yes, another epic—CIA novel by Robert Littell on the history of the agency. A hint as to the likely villains in this cinematic exercise: they won’t reside in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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