“There’s a stranger in our house,” one spook intones ominously in The Good Shepherd, by which he means there’s a turncoat in the secret halls of the early CIA. But the creeping paranoia and strata of intrigue underlying the sinister poetry of that line work equally well for the viewer who finds herself simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the larger insinuation the film wants us to take from its quiet alarm: We are all, we Americans, under the thumb of a stranger we barely acknowledge, one that acts in our name and often against the ideals we supposedly hold dear.
Cool, cynical irony drips from every moment of The Good Shepherd, a names-changed-to-protect-the-guilty, more-truth-in-fiction retelling of the evolution of the United States Central Intelligence Agency from the wartime Office of Strategic Services through the early years of the Cold War. But psychically, the through line of this bitter, bleak rending of American mythology takes us right up to this very moment, when brief scuffles over the PATRIOT Act seem to have settled themselves into a national shrug, a cultural acceptance of the inevitability of total surveillance. This is not something director Robert DeNiro and screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider) are happy about: Shepherd is an unruffled but searing indictment of the concept of covert intelligence particularly as it has played out in the United States, where it has been molded by the wealthy and privileged working toward their own ends.
These men do not fare well under Roth and DeNiro, who wields cinema like a covert weapon itself in only his third outing as a director. Edward Wilson, one of the founders of the CIA — and a barely disguised stand-in for real CIA founder James Angleton — is, at best, in his early “idealistic” days, a distant figure, one already at a remove from his fellow human beings and yet, paradoxically, already willing to compromise, denying his own happiness for the sake of his social reputation. He is — as played by Matt Damon (The Departed, Syriana) with a calm that masks a passionate dedication to making this chilly man real, if deliberately unlikeable — a man more interested in the mechanics of life than in actually living. As a student at Yale in the years just before World War II, he joins the ultrasecret Skull and Bones Society, because that’s what young men of wealth and name did, and these “brothers for life,” who pledge themselves to the fellow Bonesmen first and God second, form the core not only of the CIA to come but of the federal government itself. This is, as Wilson explains much later, once he is deeply ensconced in that implacable core, as it should be: his people — rich, white, and superprivileged — are the only true Americans, and the only ones who should run it.
It’s long before that point, however, that Wilson has lost any sympathy he might have had from us, and that’s just the way The Good Shepherd wants it. It’s not so much that his closed-off silence has estranged his wife, the cloying and manipulative Clover (Angelina Jolie: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Alexander); we’ve never had much empathy for her, and she’s never much deserved it, so that’s fine. It’s not his personal life at all, disaster that it is, with sons who simultaneously worship and despise him and not one genuine human connection to call his own. It’s the disdain for all the things he avers to cherish, the grand, puny sweep of his life that mirrors the skulking insidiousness of an organization that spirals more into itself the larger it gets, that sends out more tendrils of influence and control as it burrows deeper into hiding. It would be tragic… except that Wilson fails to see it thus, not out of self-denial but out of utter lack of feeling. He can’t trust anyone, but he doesn’t want to trust anyone.
You could call Wilson merciless, but it’s both more and less than that: he is a robot who cannot even appreciate that he lacks emotion. And the entirety of The Good Shepherd creates a portrait of this cold man as the CIA, his personality — or lack thereof — becoming the personality of the agency itself, becoming the very antithesis of what we Americans like to think America is: friendly, warm, egalitarian. This is the mask being pulled from the face of America, and finding that the visage inside is a thoroughly unpleasant one.