2007-01-12 / Columnists


'The Good Shepherd' - CIA Secrets
Review By Robert Snyder

Actor Robert De Niro played a retired Central Intelligence (CIA) operative in the comedies, "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers." In both, he was funny.

Now, he has directed "The Good Shepherd" about the birth of the CIA, where nothing is funny at all. In fact, the film about an Ivy League WASP who co-founds the notorious espionage organization is three hours of deadly seriousness. Those not fascinated with the subject may have more fun watching water evaporate.

From a screenplay by Eric Roth ("Munich" and "Forrest Gump," for which he won an Oscar), "The Good Shepherd" is based on the career of real-life CIA co-creator John Angleton, here under the name of Edward Wilson and played by Matt Damon so solemnly that he almost makes "Shepherd" seem like a silent movie.

However, "silence" is the operative word because Wilson's great strength as a spy is that he doesn't speak. His silence is a powerful weapon. If you've ever seen or read Robert De Niro in an interview, you'll understand why he was attracted to this material. He too doesn't speak.

It is also no surprise that Francis Ford Coppola oversaw "Shepherd" as executive producer. Epic in scope, the film is in many ways a WASP version of Coppola's "Godfather" movies. There is even a scene where Wilson's wife, Margaret "Clover" (Angelina Jolie), challenges her spy husband about his secret life. It's much like the Al Pacino- Diane Keaton confrontation in the "Godfather" over a Mafia murder. Except, Pacino's character said something… he lied. Wilson has a couple of explosive scenes, but nothing about his "business" is ever revealed to his wife.

"Shepherd" begins with Wilson at Yale University, being tapped to join the spooky fraternity, Skull and Bones (both Bush Presidents were members, as was George W's 2004 election opponent Senator John Kerry.) Wilson enters the secret society after being urinated upon while he is nude mudwrestling. (Did our two Bush Presidents do this?)

The Skull and Bones' tendrils extend deep and far, with regular meetings occurring over the years at a place called, "Deer Island," (actually filmed at the Harbor Light Restaurant in Belle Harbor). CIA connections appear to be firmly rooted in the fraternity, which, while wacky, is obviously no Animal House.

The story's spine (if there is one) involves an audiotape of a sexual tryst where details concerning the Bay of Pigs covert operation were leaked before the disastrous Cuba invasion in 1961. It takes the entire movie for Wilson to get to the bottom of this mystery. We see little James Bond excitement along the way. Still, one episode has an alleged Soviet spy undergo LSD-induced torture by Wilson henchman (John Turturro). The scene is disturbingly in-synch with the torture moments in "Syriana" and "Casino Royale," an upsetting sign of the times. It includes now-controversial "water boarding," which seems more than "a dunk in the water," as a Bush spokesman has said.

If you are into CIA secrets, sit through "The Good Shepherd." But you may think twice about sending your son to Yale.

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