Bright Lights Film Journal

I Found One , The Good Shepherd

In my last blog post, I apologized for not locating any shots of cinematic waterboarding. Since then I managed to find one – from The Good Shepherd DVD. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the hint.)

Produced by Francis Coppola (among others) and directed by Robert De Niro, The Good Shepherd is an epic history of the CIA from its post-World War II beginnings through the Kennedy era, with Matt Damon as the central figure, a CIA official who specializes in counterintelligence.

The Good Shepherd plays like a cross between Coppola’s Godfather II and Otto Preminger’s The Human Factor (from the Graham Greene novel) – though not as entertaining as either. As in Human Factor, the main character is given a choice between family and country. Unlike the Human Factor protagonist, Matt’s character chooses country, but the end results are just as grim. Which goes to show there’s something fundamentally dysfunctional about the spook game no matter how you play it. For all its laudable intentions, this is a depressingly serious, seriously depressing film.

Angelina Jolie plays Matt’s neglected wife. She’s good, but it’s a thankless role – like Diane Keaton’s in Godfather II. Her dad, a senator, is played by Keir Dullea (Bunny Lake is Missing). Those cheekbones had to come from somewhere.

The film seems to locate the source of all evil in Yale’s Skull and Bones – the secret organization purportedly behind the secret organization (all the fictionalized CIA founders are connected in some way with S&B;). The “fun and games” of Matt’s initiation into S&B; (he has to mud-wrestle naked while being urinated upon) is echoed later in the film by CIA interrogation techniques – including waterboarding, beatings, and the use of LSD as a “truth serum.” This is a film directed by an actor of Italian ancestry that is mainly about WASPs, and it depicts said WASPs as gray, emotionally repressed, and, as a result, destructive. The Good Shepherd‘s screenplay, written by Eric Roth, offers S&B; as a metaphor for the insularity of WASP culture in general.


The opposition of WASP culture to everyone else is made explicit in a scene between Damon’s character and a shockingly aged-looking Joe Pesci playing a Mafia chieftain (reminiscent of Lee Strasberg’s role in Godfather II).

Pesci, as “Joe Parmi,” asks:

“We Italians, we got our families and we got the Church. The Irish, they have their homeland. The Jews, they have their tradition. Even the n*gg*rs, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson, what do you have?”

And Damon, as “Edward Wilson,” replies:

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

Significantly, De Niro casts himself in a role based on OSS head, “Wild Bill” Donovan, an Irish Catholic.

In addition to the actors already mentioned, the distinguished ensemble cast includes William Hurt, John Turturro (who after this film might be referred to as “John Torture-O”), Michael Gambon, and Alec Baldwin. The cinematography is by the great Robert Richardson (JFK), and while effective, it’s not up to Richardson’s usual standard – tamped down somehow, like the film as a whole.

(To read co-blogger Alan Vanneman’s take, click here. For once, Alan, you and I are pretty much on the same page.)