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the good shepherd The Good Shepherd
Directed by:
Robert De Niro
Cast: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Tammy Blanchard

Written by:
Ricardo Barberini

January 17, 2007

I think it was the philosopher, George Santayana who once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“.


Now that is the trouble with America.  We do not learn from our past or anybody else’s mistakes.  We never learned a lesson from World War II and went blithely into the Korean War which we did not win since North Korea; ever more defiant, is still around.   We appeased China and ended up with a country that has a stranglehold over our economy.  We lost in Vietnam and decided to repeat it again in Iraq. 

And yet we have some of the best spy agencies in the world, CIA, NSA etc.

The story which is mostly based on the life and career of James Angleton is quite interesting but develops very slowly.  The director and the writer could have speeded up the action and the dialogue a little more.

Ed Wilson (Matt Damon), the son of a discredited naval officer who has committed suicide, joins the secretive Skulls and Bones society while in college. As soon as he finishes his college, he marries a young girl that he has made pregnant even though he is in love with a deaf girl.

He is offered a job with OSS, a precursor to CIA and is transferred to Europe.  There he learns the art and practice of espionage and double dealing from the British. 

He hires a crude and cruel assistant, Ray Brocco (John Turtorro) who stays with him to the end.  After a long absence of five years, he comes back to US to an estranged wife and a son who needs his affections but does not get it.

He is totally devoted to his work and rises through the rank of the new CIA until he is the head of the Counter Intelligence section. 

Even though he is paranoid and suspicious he is still fooled by the KGB who send a fake defector, Valentin Mironov played by John Sessions, and plant him as a mole in his organization.

Later, in 1961, he is part of the group that plans and executes the disastrous invasion of Cuba through the Bay of Pigs.

His wife leaves him when she finds out that he has had an affair with his old sweetheart.

Finally, he finds out that his son is involved with a black soviet spy in Africa.  He arranges to kill the woman who is pregnant and is about to be married to his son.  We assume it is because he is both a racist and also afraid of compromising his situation by having an ex agent within his family.

That is where it ends, around the mid 1960’s.  I hope that there will be a sequel to this movie.  Actually, we probably need two sequels, one from the sixties to the mid nineties and another one from the nineties to the present time since those were watershed years in the US spy activities.

The real Angleton went on to spy on peace activists and labor unions amongst others despite the law prohibiting spying on US citizens inside the country.  He even spied on CIA employees and derailed the careers of many of them.  He was tolerated and feared in the same way that his contemporary Edgar Hoover of FBI was feared.  It took the presidency of Gerald Ford to force his resignation and that of his immediate henchmen.   Even then he accused Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister of being KGB agents or sympathizers.  To think that we had such men in positions of power; an alleged cross dresser at FBI and a cold blooded paranoid at the CIA!

We have seen Matt Damon in many movies.  He is a skilled actor and his deadpan expressions fit perfectly for the role that he is playing.  However, they did not age him properly for the latter part of the story.  Somehow, they did a good job with Angelina Jolie but not Matt.  The director, Robert De Niro did a great job in selecting the supporting actors. 

Now my criticism.  The movie is told through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards between 1939 and 1961.  Flashbacks have been used for over eighty years to good effect but there is always the chance of losing the audience.  There is at least one scene where two scenes are played almost side by side.  It is rather difficult to explain but basically Matt finds out that the defector Mironov is a Russian mole and then goes to his house to force him to play the violin since the real Mironov was supposed to be a great violin player.  The director, or maybe the editor (Tariq Anwar) in this case, has intertwined these two events into a single scene, jumping back and forth, which is rather artsy but somewhat incomprehensible.

The dialogue is at times terse and difficult to follow.  A little verbosity would have helped here.  In addition, there are too many people that are introduced very briefly without explanation of who they are and how they are related to the story.  We are supposed to work that out by ourselves.  There are redundant shots that could have been edited out.  The meeting between Joe Pesci and Matt Damon did not add anything to the movie except telling us something about the psyche of Matt Damon’s character.  If that was the intent, it could have been included earlier as part of another scene. 

We have heard that this movie was Robert De Niro’s pet project for ten years.  If that is true then he obviously was so familiar with the characters that he assumed that the movie goers were as knowledgeable as he was with the background of this story.  This brings us back to the first line of this review about Americans forgetting the lessons of history.

The paranoid atmosphere of the period and ruthlessness of intelligence agencies is depicted appropriately.  We were hoping that as a nation and a world we would have become more civilized by now but, as events have shown, we are engaging in more torture, eavesdropping on innocent people and denial of due process than ever before. 

Perhaps, as the Russian defector, the real Colonel Mironov (the second defector who was tortured by CIA) states in the movie, fear of Russia was largely manufactured by the military industrial complex.  We neglected the situation in the Middle East which came to haunt us later.

The best quote of the film which shows the mentality of the WASPs who controlled this nation until recently is the following between Joe Pesci who plays a Mafia don and Matt Damon who pretends that he is a Mr. Carlson:

Joe: We Italians have the family and the church

        The Irish have their homeland

        The Jews have their tradition

         Even the Blacks have their music

         What about your people Mr. Carlson?

The answer is swift and to the point:

Matt:  United States of America, the rest of you are just visiting.

That statement is the microcosm of how and who ruled the United States until the mid sixties when the tide of antiwar and anti establishment sentiments swept most of that away.  But then….

This is by far one of the best movies of the season.  Initially, we did not select it as the movie of the month because of two reasons, first the sexual contents and then the realistic and disturbing torture scenes. When we watch a horror movie we do not get overly horrified by the action since we assume it is all fantasy.  But, in this film, we knew that it depicted reality. 

We give this movie starstarstar

Go watch it but don’t take your kids with you!

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