by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - January 29, 2007) Robert De Niro's film about the CIA inevitably invites comparison with the master of the spy genre, John Le Carré. The grim, alienated hero, played by Matt Damon, recalls the hero of Le Carré's early work, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The murky air of secrecy, the scenes of brooding introspection, are common to both. The irony of the title -- referring to a man who ends up neither good nor a shepherd -- echoes a similar irony of Le Carré's Honorable Schoolboy. Both works are about characters who begin with high moral purposes only to be compromised by the nature of the work they are doing, their own human failings, or betrayal by their superiors.
Le Carré's novels are complex literary creations, mixing psychological drama with political intrigue, convincing descriptions of tradecraft with believable historical situations. The Good Shepherd, written by Eric Roth, is a simpler work, depicting a more brutal, factual world, and less subtle characters. Aside from the difference of literary talent (Le Carré is virtually the Shakespeare of the genre), this reflects the difference between England and America -- one a former power, relegated to secondary roles and prone to introspection, the other a global strongman, crudely pursuing its interests.
The difference is one between spying as intelligence-gathering and spying as subversion, or covert use of force. The British version, as portrayed by Le Carré, is somewhat of a game, played by upper class Englishmen, against intellectual and cultural equals on the other side. Its subject is personal integrity in a world of compromised ideals on both sides. De Niro's American version is about power, the manipulation of events through deception and violence. There is no ambiguity about the political values being fought for. The dramatic question is simply what mixture of toughness and integrity is necessary for carrying out the mission. Its broad subject could be called the trial by fire of American liberalism -- are we tough enough to carry out our world-historical task? There is a faint sense that maybe our means are not consistent with our morals, but this issue is not significant in the outcome of the story.
There are three plot lines in De Niro's film: the search to discover who "betrayed" the Bay of Pigs operation; the confrontation of the hero with his inner demons; and a kind of highlight film of CIA history, including putting the British ally in its place, snatching up Nazi scientists after the war, toppling Latin American governments, exposing Russian double agents, and the use of torture. Some of these may be meant to mark the increasing moral callousness of the hero, and some seem to be more perfunctory, a slideshow of the "tough" world in which the CIA operates.
The search for the mole in the Bay of Pigs operation is the center of the plot, conducted with gee-whiz technology in the reconstruction of photo and audio evidence of a sexual liaison in which the information is thought to have been passed. The emphasis on the high-tech capabilities of the agency is standard Hollywood fare, and seems a bit naïve in the context of today's events. The idea that the Bay of Pigs failure could only have come about by betrayal, rather than its own incompetence or strategic folly, is itself a simplification of reality, reinforcing frayed Cold War stereotypes.
The psychological drama of the hero, Edward Wilson, told in a series of flashbacks, is rooted in the trauma of his father's suicide. This event, which happened when Wilson was six, is preceded by a scene in which the father lectures his son on the importance of "loyalty." Later on, the son discovers the suicide was prompted by some kind of "betrayal" the father felt guilty of. The trauma of the suicide and the weighty moral injunction attached to it become the core of a divided personality in the hero -- expressing itself as rigid adherence to duty and aloofness from normal human relations, which in turn are the seeds of his own eventual failure as a father.
This is classical Aristotelian tragedy, yet it lacks the key Aristotelian ingredient -- recognition. At the close of the film, following his own worst personal moment, Wilson learns he has been appointed to the number three position in the agency. As he walks away through the empty corridors of his new home, he has the air of one crushed, or unable to escape his fate, and yet it's not clear that he recognizes his real damnation. This is an ironic tragedy, in which the waste of a life changes nothing.
Damon plays this role with unwavering grimness, without a hint of humor or personal feeling -- so that it's hard to recognize any internal changes in him. We have to assume this is the director's choice, indicating either a world in which human responses are irrelevant, or a character too battered to realize what's happened to him. The final scene certainly arouses pity, or discomfort at least, but the message of it is not clear. De Niro has shown some of the agency's uglier practices, but there is no one in the story who stands against them. Unlike the hero of Costa Gavras's Z, who dies trying to oppose the forces of fascism in post-war Greece, the pity generated by Wilson's failure is not linked to any moral critique of the values that destroy him.
De Niro's film makes one strong political statement -- the close connection between the CIA and America's business and financial elites represented in Yale's Skull and Bones society. The Skull and Bones link is reinforced in several annual reunions in which much of Wilson's back-story is told and most of the top officials of the agency appear as alumni. The film very clearly states that this inner group of US elites basically guides and enacts US foreign policy, through the CIA. When the soon-to-be Agency Director, played by William Hurt, accompanies Wilson through bombed-out Berlin at the end of the war and says our job is "to save all this for us," he doesn't mean for the United States, but for that privileged class represented in the mystical brotherhood of "Bonesmen." De Niro's depiction of the cultish, sadistic, homoerotic initiation rites makes it clear he doesn't think this is a healthy influence in American government.
Two friends who saw the film with me commented on its "high production values." That means it's good entertainment, and draws you effectively into its world of dark practices and moral risk. The back and forth timeframe creates a sense of mystery in itself, like watching two parts of a puzzle being completed, without knowing how they join. The problem is when they do finally join, the completed picture is not that compelling. The message is less than the mystery.
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