Watching Robert DeNiro, Angelina Jolie, and Matt Damon discuss The Good Shepherd with Charlie Rose was an interesting experience. They were saying things like:
“So many good people involved. ”
“It’s why you want to be in the film business. ”
“Everybody loved the script. ”
“Such an interesting story. ”
The banality of these answers was equaled by the banality of the questions. Rose even tried to relate the film to The Departed, something I still don’t understand. But there was one important point that surfaced. DeNiro had tried to get the film made for eight years. So clearly it was close to him personally. Second, DeNiro apparently liked the script by Eric Roth a lot. I will return to this later since I think Roth and his script are a real problem. In fact, the root of the problem.
The Good Shepherd was subtitled in its trailer, “The Untold Story of the Birth of the CIA.” This is a real misnomer, since most of the “untold” actual events are immediately recognizable to anyone who has a cursory knowledge of the history of the CIA. In another sense the subtitle is true since the story it tells is very liberally fictionalized. In that sense, it is untold. The main character in the film, Edward Wilson is based upon legendary counter-intelligence chief James Angleton. And there are other characters that are clearly based on CIA luminaries. DeNiro plays a man named William Sullivan who is based on OSS chief William Donovan. William Hurt plays someone named William Arlen, which suggests Allen Dulles. There are two Russian defectors in the film also. One, who Wilson befriends, suggests Anatoly Golitsin. A second one, who Wilson disbelieves, is modeled on Yuri Nosenko. And as in the Nosenko story, we see the CIA handlers torture the second defector on Angleton/Wilson’s orders. This sequence ends with screenwriter Roth borrowing the denouement of another CIA episode. The handlers inject the defector with LSD (why they do is very weakly explained) and he suddenly turns and jumps out the hotel window to his death. This actually happened during the MK/Ultra program with unwitting subject Frank Olson.
The story follows Wilson from his college days at Yale to his recruitment into the CIA by Sullivan. We then watch him on some of his and his cohorts’ assignments in places like West Germany and South America. These are done in flashbacks, and the recurring present “frame” of the story is the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle. Wilson is charged with investigating “leaks” about that operation. The trail ends up fingering a family member who the KGB has bugged. This leads to a personal tragedy for Wilson and his family: his marriage falls apart; his son’s fiancée is killed. But he gets a higher position at the CIA’s new building, which went up near the end of the Kennedy presidency. The film ends with him walking through the new wing to his new office.
What Roth has done with this story is not just a mutation of the facts. Its one thing to make up a fiction, like say John Le Carre does, based on experiences, which are intrinsically interesting and also dramatic in personal terms. It is something else to seriously alter real events and actually make them less interesting than they are. And to rely on cheap devices to create drama. For instance, the climactic personal drama in the piece comes from Wilson’s son overhearing a conversation while in the shower through an open door. Roth uses the whole open door motif throughout the film. We are to believe that when someone like Donovan/Sullivan comes to see him Wilson would leave the door to his den open so anyone could overhear. In other words, if the doors would have been shut, as they should have, the film would have no climax. Another Rothian touch: he uses a deaf girl that Wilson liked in college to humanize the rather inscrutable character. They go to bed as youths, but she can’t go through with it. Many years later, they see each other at the theater, a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. Moments later they are in a bar together. Moments after that, they leave the bar together, presumably never to see each other again. But wait: Roth summons Movieland. She steps out of the taxi she was in, they stare at each other, and Presto! They are in a hotel bed together, except this time, they go all the way. Later, Wilson’s wife Clover (Angelina Jolie) gets photos of this rendezvous. She confronts Wilson with them in public and creates a huge scene at a Christmas party. (Who took the photos, how and why, are never made clear. )
What Roth does with the Bay of Pigs episode is also done for the purposes of making personal drama. He postulates that the Cubans knew the landing site in advance. In no book or report that I have read is this stated. In fact, the best report I know, the one by CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick, states that Castro knew an invasion was imminent because of the CIA leafleting and supply drops made by air in the weeks prior to the landing. So he put his huge militia of over 200,000 men on alert. When the invasion came it was quite noisy and it alerted a regular army detail near the scene. They in turn called out the nearby militia and enough troops and armor got to the front to prevent a beachhead from being established.
This in turn relates to another point of CIA mythology that Roth uses. He states that Kennedy’s canceling of the so-called “second” air strike doomed the operation. This canard, repeated by such military pedant types as Alexander Haig, has been refuted by Kennedy’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He told author Noel Twyman that the second strike was not in the original plans, which Allen Dulles would not leave for JFK to study. That the CIA came back to them, after the invasion was in operation, and requested the second strike. Further, as Kirkpatrick notes, what difference would it have made if the second strike had taken place?The bottom line was that you had a weakly supplied invasion force of 1,500 men against a strongly supplied army and militia of over 225, 000 men. When looked at in this way, one sees why Dulles would not leave the plans with JFK. Under scrutiny it would have become clear that the mission could not succeed as planned. In actuality, the Agency had banked on Kennedy caving as the invasion faltered. That he would then order an American invasion of the island to save face. Which he didn’t. He couldn’t, because as the film shows, about seven days prior he had told a press conference American troops would not invade Cuba. Further, near the end of the film, when the Dulles character is fired, it’s because of embezzling funds. In reality, he was terminated because JFK realized he had been duped about the operation.
All of the above seems to me to be more interesting than what Roth has reduced it to. And in his direction DeNiro does not mitigate much of the heavy handedness. We see Wilson trying to decipher a photo of the man suspected of leaking the invasion. We suspect early that the reason we cannot see the man is because it must be someone close to the protagonist. When Wilson finally realizes the actual location where the leak took place, he personally flies to the location alone. So now we know it must be someone close to him since men in that position in the CIA usually don’t go to far off exotic places themselves. Early on, after Wilson contacts an old college professor in England, he is asked to get the undercover operative to leave the spy service. He must do this by asking the old man to tie his shoe in view of other spies. Which he does. But that’s not enough for Roth. Even after we see this, the Kim Philby type running the operation has the old man killed by drowning him in a river down the street. First we hear the screams, which rise in volume. Then Wilson walks down the street to see the splashing of the old man who is already underwater. Then we watch as his cane slowly disappears beneath the surface and the water subsides. The Philby type says to Wilson, “He knew too much. ” Roth doesn’t have Wilson ask the obvious: “Then why did you have him go through the whole charade of tying my shoe?”This whole scene was done with all the subtlety of DeNiro’s pal Martin Scorsese.
And that’s a problem with this enterprise. A friend offers his hand to Wilson before going on a CIA operation at a coffee plantation in South America, Wilson tells him he should not be wearing his school ring down there. DeNiro makes sure we see the ring. We then watch the operation go awry. Cut to Wilson in his office and a coffee can arrives on his desk. His assistant then laboriously goes through the process of peeling it open. I’d say half the audience understood what would be inside. But DeNiro shows us a close-up of the severed finger. I won’t even go into the ending. I will only say that I think everyone understood what would happen to the son’s fiancée at least three minutes before it occurred. Eric Roth telegraphs better than the old Western Union. And DeNiro does nothing to lessen his telegraphic powers.
The really surprising thing about the film is not Roth’s dull script. Since this is the guy who helped bring us things like Ali and Munich, I knew what to expect. The surprise is that DeNiro has directed a cast that is, to be kind, unexceptional. Angelina Jolie brings nothing new or original to a part that has her light and cheery at the beginning, and frustrated and sad at the end. The usually pallid William Hurt is palled again as the Dulles figure. DeNiro himself play the Donovan character as a kind of avuncular long lost relative. He has none of the force, drive, or scalpel mind Donovan had. But the real failure in the cast is Matt Damon as Wilson/Angleton. When Damon has to go out and get a role, as in Good Will Hunting, he does alright. But here, the role is one that is almost completely interior. Most of it takes place as they say, “between the ears”. It’s the kind of acting that is difficult, unappreciated, and rarely attempted by a star since it is completely devoid of glamour and personal appeal. Damon is not up to it. He doesn’t have the kind of subtle imagination and immense concentration a role like this requires. His facial pattern of inquiry and response are neither clear nor interesting. Instead of negating oneself in order to create another, what Damon has done is just the negation part. (If you want to see how an actor can do this kind of role, see Russell Crowe in The Insider, or a much younger DeNiro in The Last Tycoon. )
The worst part of this disappointment is that there is more to come. DeNiro has said that he made a deal with Roth. He would act and direct in Roth’s script while Roth wrote another one about a similar espionage scene, except more modern. After this, I’m not looking forward to it. If you need to jazz up the Bay of Pigs and still turn it to dross, I’d hate to see what happens with, say, Aldrich Ames. Meanwhile, to see how this kind of story is really done, and done exceptionally well, rent the DVD of Richard Burton’s classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Its something Eric Roth could never come close to.