The Good Shepherd (2006)

The main problem with The Good Shepherd is its director. Robert De Niro is a great actor, and he had the money to hire a professional cast and crew, but he doesn’t have a good sense of how to edit or how to pace a movie. The Good Shepherd, which stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a loosely fictionalized version of the CIA’s legendary counter intelligence director James Jesus Angleton, runs close to 3 hours. Robert De Niro, to quote William Faulkner, needs to learn how to “kill his darlings.” He casts Joe Pesci as Joseph Palmi, an Italian American mob boss based on Sam Giancana, simply to cast Joe Pesci. Palmi’s character does nothing to develop the plot, and is dropped almost as quickly as he’s introduced. De Niro’s two brief cameos as a thinly fictionalized Wild Bill Donovan — the Army Air Force hero who founded the OSS — are equally forgettable. De Niro, and screenwriter Eric Roth attempt to stuff the entire history of the CIA from 1945 to the Bay of Pigs into one feature length movie. The unfortunate result is that unless you already know the entire history of the CIA from 1945 to the Bay of Pigs, The Good Shepherd will often be confusing, frustrating, and at times downright incomprehensible. A good screenwriter can tell a complex story in a two hour movie — The Big Short is an excellent example of one that does — but that’s not what The Good Shepherd does. If it were anybody other than Robert De Niro, the critics would have simply called it “bad writing.”

So should you watch it?

The answer is “yes and no,” yes if you know something about James Jesus Angleton, Alan Dulles, Kim Philby, and the Bay of Pigs, but no if you don’t. If you can follow the plot, The Good Shepherd is an often fascinating study of the people the Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “the power elite,” the unelected class of Wall Street bankers, lawyers, Pentagon warlords, chief executives, and intelligence officers who manipulate politics from behind the scenes. There is revealing moment, for example, in the brief exchange between Edward Wilson and Joseph Palmi. Wilson, who has discovered that Palmi had actually been born in Italy, and that he had never been naturalized as a United States citizen, has come to strong arm him into doing an favor for the CIA. We don’t learn exactly what Wilson, who goes by the name of “Mr. Carlson,” wants from Palmi. It’s probably part of a plot to kill Castro, but their conversation never spells out the details. De Niro is far more concerned with the cultural conflict between two very different members of two very different criminal gangs.

“Let me ask you something,” Palmi says. “We Italians, we got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their tradition. Even the niggers. They’ve got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson? What do you have?”

“The United States of America,” Wilson responds. “The rest of you are just visiting.”

Joseph Palmi and Edward Wilson are talking right past each other. By “you people” Palmi means WASPs, white Anglo Saxon Protestants, but Wilson would never acknowledge a poor Appalachian coal miner or a Midwestern farmer as one of “his people.” Throughout The Good Shepherd, Wilson, and his colleagues at the CIA overthrow sovereign governments, have their political opponents murdered, drug and waterboard suspected enemy agents, and even spy on and betray one another, all for the good of their country. But what is their country? As the movie unfolds, we begin to see that what Wilson calls The United States of America is really the top one percent of the United States of America, the owners of the plantation, not their guests, or their slaves. How much did it benefit the American people, for example, to overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala or Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran? The answer would be “not at all,” but it certainly benefited British Petroleum and the United Fruit Company. De Niro and Eric Roth, sadly, don’t have much of a class analysis. The Good Shepherd is a liberal morality tale about how power corrupts members of the elites. What’s more, it’s also something of a whitewash. Nowhere do we see Edward Wilson, or Philip Alan, a loosely fictionalized Allen Dulles, help launder the assets of Nazi industrialists or arrange for the safe passage of suspected war criminals to South America, both of which the CIA did in the 1930s and the 1940s.

Nevertheless, almost in spite of himself, The Good Shepherd gives Joe Palmi, a character who has all of 2 minutes of screen time, the last word. Robert De Niro, a veteran of two Godfather movies, Goodfellas and Casino, finds something deeply cold and sinister, something downright unsettling, in Edward Wilson and the WASP gangsters who get “tapped” at Yale to join Skull and Bones, the elite secret fraternity which also counts George W. Bush and John Kerry as members, and end up running the CIA and the State Department. “We Italians, we got our families and we got the church,” Palmi says, and indeed, as bad as Michael Corleone and “the family” were, they were, at least, recognizably human. They were motivated by lust, greed, the love of power, rage, jealousy, but never a cold, robotic, unquestioning sense of duty to a an elite masquerading as the United States of America. “What about you people Mr. Carlson. What do you have?” In truth, and deep down inside Edward Wilson knows it, he and his people have nothing. To be more accurate, he throws everything way. First he abandons Laura, his true love, to marry Margaret, the daughter of a United States Senator played by Angelina Jolie. Then he abandons her too, first to fight the war in Europe, and then after that war is over to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Then he destroys his own bloodline

At the beginning of The Good Shepherd, after the failure of The Bay of Pigs operation, Wilson begins to suspect that someone inside the CIA had leaked the plans to the Soviet Union. He has one clue, a blurry film of a man and woman making love, and garbled soundtrack. As the movie flashes back and fourth between the past to the present, as it tells the story of Wilson’s rise from poetry student at Yale through Skull and Bones, the OSS, and finally the CIA, Wilson and his team of counter intelligence experts analyze the film. Eventually they trace it back to a hotel in Kinshasa, in the Republic of Congo, the same country, not incidentally, where the CIA arranged for the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected President of the troubled Central African country. To his horror, Wilson realizes that the leak came from his own 23-year-old son, Edward Wilson, Jr., an emotionally unstable young man who, against his mother’s wishes, had followed his father’s path through Skull and Bones into the CIA.

The younger Wilson, who might as well be called the “Fredo” of The Good Shepherd, had carelessly let slip the plans for the Bay of Pigs Operation to his African fiancée, who, unknown to himself, is also a Soviet agent. “Ulysses,” a Soviet master spy, had managed to infiltrate Wilson’s inner-circle at the CIA, identify, and target his family members. He gives Edward Wilson Sr. a choice, his country or his family, agree to become a double agent for the Soviet Union inside the CIA, or watch his son be exposed as the dupe who destroyed the American effort to launch a successful coup against Fidel Castro. Edward Wilson, of course, chooses his country. He assures his son, who genuinely believes that his Soviet handler loves him, that he will accept the young woman into the family. He rolls up Ulysses’ network inside the United States. He plants his own mole inside the KGB. Finally we watch in horror as he orders his son’s fiancée thrown out of an airplane, Argentinian dirty war style, several thousand feet to her death. As in The Godfather, all the family’s business has been settled, but with a difference. After the younger Wilson tells his father his fiancée had been pregnant, and we see the empty look in the older man’s eyes, we realize that the Wilson family is no more.

Edward Wilson has murdered his own grandchild.

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14 comments

  1. You are absolutely right, you must already have some historical context of the Bay of Pigs and how the CIA was started to be able to watch and digest this film. But if one were to ‘compare’ evils, the Corleone Family or Wilson, to the casual observer, Corleone seems more palatable. They at least celebrate Italian traditions of family, church and love for one another (except their enemies). Wilson doesn’t even care about his family. If Wilson was Italian, and given a choice, he’d choose his family by destroying the person blackmailing him or turn it around somehow. If Wilson Jr. were Italian, he’d be closer to his father and perhaps share that his fiancee is pregnant…and Wilson Sr. would not consider throwing her out of a plane, until after she has the baby at least.

    1. The most frustrating part of De Niro’s direction is how he handles the Russian defectors. It’s honestly hard to tell them apart. Scorsese would have known how to let you know which Russian was which. De Niro doesn’t have that skill.

      (And the fake Russian defector is not only a key plot point — it exposes Wilson’s son to Ulysses — it’s what finally ruined the real life Angelton’s career.)

      I also wish De Niro had explored in more depth what it meant that Edward Wilson Jr. had a black, not a white girlfriend. Did Ulysses read the younger Wilson and decide to play on his rebelliousness against his father? Did the elder Wilson’s racism play any part in his willinginess to have her murdered? Probably not, he had a German KGB agent gunned down without a second thought, but she was never in any danger of joining “the family.”

      As far as the Godfather goes, even though Michael has Fredo wacked, it was Kay Corleone (a WASP) who finally destroys him by destroying his bloodline. I’m pretty sure De Niro had this famous scene in mind when it came to Wilson’s having his son’s girlfriend tossed out of the plane.

      1. Wilson’s racism – I doubt it, I don’t think he sees the world that way and I don’t even think he ‘sees’ his son and his choices as his own person…just another pawn or potential asset. He may not even realize it.
        As for Michael killing Fredo, Coppola made it seem like there was no other way, “regrettably, it’s come to this”…and it was done after the death of their mother, to sort of mitigate the pain. Kay didn’t destroy his bloodline totally, just his second child, he has an older son…which Kay has already prevented from becoming like Michael.

        1. The relationship between father and son is underdeveloped. Why was Edward Jr. dumb enough to spill the plans for the Bay of Pigs to some woman in Kinshasa? He was a Skull and Bonesman, after all. He probably knew the importance of keeping secrets. Half the point of these secret societies is to train young men not to “think with the wrong head.”

          p.s. I can’t imagine Edward Jr. getting “tapped” at Yale by Skull and Bones anyway. Not really the type.

          1. No, if memory serves me right, Eddie Redmayne is Edward Jr.? And no, he’s not the Skulls & Bone type. As for thinking with ‘ahem’ right head – because his fiance is black, maybe he didn’t think she could be a spy? The father-son relationship is undeveloped because Edward Sr. is incapable…

            1. Yes, Eddie Redmayne, who looks nothing like Damon.

              What he did was pretty fucking stupid. Imagine one of the “wiseguys” from Goodfellas spilling the beans about the Lufthansa job to a casual hookup.

              Wilson probably should have given operational command of the whole operation to Joe Palmi.

  2. You’re totally right, Stan. I had no idea that the film was actually about James Jesus Angleton. I found it especially poignant in its revelations. And one of the most chilling scenes ever put on film was the scene in which Liya Kabede gets pushed out of the airplane on her wedding day. But other than the Bay of Pigs, I had no idea what was being portrayed historically.

    1. It was difficult to pick out the Guatemala coup too. Even the bit where Wilson’s professor tries to seduce him by plagiarize some obscure New England poet is a bit confusing. I mean, you know the guy was gay, and it’s clear he’s got the hots for Damon, but until Damon exposes the fraud, it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s using the poem.

      Trumbull Stickney was real, FWIW.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trumbull_Stickney

  3. And did you recognize the actor who plays the son as the guy who had the lead in “Clean, Shaven”?

  4. no, apparently, it was Eddy Redmayne, looking very much like that other actor. I’m going to have to see this again sometime after reading the book.

    1. Yeah. Clean Shaven was released in 1993. That actor would have been too old.

  5. […] 2012 production of Les Miserables, also directed by Tom Hooper, and as Matt Damon’s son in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd. I haven’t made up my mind about his performance in The Danish Girl. While he certainly […]

  6. […] Robert De Niro demonstrated in his otherwise forgettable movie about CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, the CIA is just like the mob, only with WASPs, and not Italians. Over the past seventy years, they […]

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