"He knows too much."
Someone (I won't say who, of course) actually gets to say those words in The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro's often mesmerizing, zip-lipped study of the idealistic founding and moral rotting of the Central Intelligence Agency. That very John le Carre line is said without irony.
The character doesn't say much else.
You've heard the saying, "The silence was deafening"? De Niro, in his second outing as director, goes for broke. He goes big and ambitious. His picture embodies that saying, stretching to nearly three hours a film about the hard price of silence, on a family and a country - and for once, three hours is not enough time for so big a topic, so intricate a picture.
It doesn't know too much.
For the first hour at least, too much is not even enough. The sociology of the operatives feels intimate and insightful. The details of the work are fascinating. Men move in shadows and speak in bland, simple sentences with cryptic meanings. A child asks for $1 on a bus, but nothing is what it is. Someone says: "There is a stranger in our house, sir." Someone asks: "How was the fishing?" Someone replies: "The water was too high." There is no downtime, no overtime, no work hours. Every breath is a chess move. Every relation is a potential leak - if you're not paranoid, find a more suited profession. As Alec Baldwin says in The Departed - and could just as well say in his supporting role here - the world always needs bartenders.
In nearly every frame, you feel De Niro drawing on his experiences with directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (major shades of The Godfather) and especially the chilly professional sheen of Michael Mann - whose 1995 De Niro classic Heat, at least thematically, feels like a warm-up for The Good Shepherd. De Niro, with screenwriter Eric Roth
(of Mann's The Insider and Spielberg's Munich), is looking for the roots of that contemporary strain of men who are bottled-up in their work to the detriment of their lives. But in broadening the scope, the film also seeks the roots of a government so closed off from reality - well, the film makes a persuasive case for why (and how) a government can think the only reality that matters is the one it manufactures.
Of course, studios do it, too.
Have you seen the ads?
An announcer explains it's the story of "a man who loves his country." Period. No wink in the words. But to say this is a film about patriotism is like saying The Godfather is about the rise of a small-business owner. The character played by Matt Damon, on the other hand, certainly believes in his love of country. So much so, he doesn't think about it. He just says it. When De Niro - in a supporting role as the Army official who recruits Damon for a life of shadows and silence - tells him "I love this country," Damon's quick response is "We all do, sir."
Again, there's no irony.
But by the end, for the sake of country, you'll wish there were.
The Good Shepherd tells the story of the CIA's early pre-World War II days, through its stumbles in the 1960s (the picture opens with the Bay of Pigs fiasco unraveling). But just as important, it tells the story of Edward Wilson (Damon) - rather, it filters the story of the agency through the story of Wilson (a fictional composite of key historical CIA spooks), and it gives us reason to think Wilson embodies the CIA.
That's certainly how Damon plays it. He's a man walled off, so unemotional he's the ideal spy. (Indeed, the picture is cold, partially by design, partially, I think, because of an obsessive intricateness that drains its energy - which may be the point.) As we see in the first of a handful of seamless flashbacks, Wilson was grave as a boy, the quiet son of a wealthy New England family whose father (Timothy Hutton, the first of a dozen smart supporting performances) kills himself. Edward wants to be a poet. He attends Yale University, upholding his WASP-ian duties.
Specifically, he's a member of the infamous Skull and Bones society - a hush-hush club who wouldn't have someone like you as a member. (Unless you're well-bred, a president in waiting, a judge, etc.) The journalist Ron Rosenbaum once wrote a fascinating expose of Skull and Bones, but De Niro manages almost the same in a couple of shrewd scenes: Damon wrestles nude, gets smeared with fecal matter, is forced to relate his most unspoken secrets, and, finally, is plucked from the ranks for his patriotism and, well, his lack of social skills. He willingly rats out a beloved professor (Michael Gambon) and doesn't blink at the agency's standards.
As a recruiter explains, operatives should not be Jewish, black, or Catholic. And as Wilson learns, family life is not recommended. Not that it bothers him. He is married to a vixen (Angelina Jolie) because he got her pregnant; there's a sweet girl from college (Tammy Blanchard) who becomes his only chance at a human connection. But after college, it's off to Europe to serve the Office of Strategic Services - which morphs into the CIA with the onset of the Cold War - and he doesn't see his wife or son for nearly a decade. What he does, they don't know. Well, they don't officially know. He never reveals himself, or admits anything, and one of the strengths of the film is how it watches the way people talk - and more specifically, lie.
The cast includes William Hurt as Damon's mentor; John Turturro as Damon's assistant; Billy Crudup as a fellow operative. Damon, however, carries nearly every scene, and after the Bourne movies and The Departed, especially, he has carved out a clever career as the fresh-faced, earnest guy who isn't. His Wilson is the ultimate in duplicitous. He never lets an emotion rise to the surface. There's an argument that De Niro never makes Wilson a human being, either. But what De Niro is more interested in is how shut-off, how willingly phony, a man is willing to make himself in the name of country.
Likewise, screenwriter Roth is not a master of the family drama. (Jolie's character is a wash, for starters.) His metier is the clandestine, the tension (as it was in Munich). What is less celebrated is his skill with quietly dropping ideas into a complex story line.
The cost of obsessive secrecy, The Good Shepherd suggests, is obsessive company men who control the world but haven't the imagination to be a part of it. Wilson is never so uneasy as when he steps into suburbia. And listen to the way the Cuban Missile Crisis becomes an afterthought, the latest crisis, not the potentially last. But one can talk confidently of the love of country when one hasn't a clue what it would it mean to lose it.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org