Hey! How did we win the Cold War, anyway?
Yale? Wasps? Homoerotic subtext? Do any of these spell Robert De Niro? I’m guessing no, but Bobby, in his second outing as director,1 obviously felt that “do what you don’t know” was the way to go. Well, often it is a good idea, but in this film Bobby takes more than a few stumbles, creating a ponderous, 2¾-hour “epic” reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, another case of paisano meets Wasp.2
Matt Damon is Edward Wilson, whom we first meet in drag as “Buttercup” in an all-male production of H.M.S Pinafore at Yale, circa 1939. Eddie’s act wows the crowd, particularly the guys at Skull and Bones, just the Waspiest thing going. Eddie says yes to an invite, but when pledging involves nude mud-wrestling for the pleasure of upperclassmen, he’s not so happy, and when one of the old Bonesmen decides to add to the fun by pissing on Eddie,3 he’s out of there.4 But the pisser catches up with him and persuades him to take it like a man. Later, Eddie has to tell the gang the deepest, darkest secret in his life, which turns out to be that his old man committed suicide, something I saw coming way too soon. Those Wasps! What a bunch of damn sissies! They can’t take it! They just can’t take it!
Studying in the library, Eddie meets cute with Laura (Tammy Blanchard),5 this totally sweet, totally together deaf chick who’s wild about him. But why? He’s a stick! He’s a damn stick! That’s the whole point of this picture, that the guy is a total damn stick! So why is she crazy about him? So he can betray her, of course, to let us know that he doesn’t have the guts to hold onto his dreams.
To make sure Eddie doesn’t hold onto his dreams, Eddie meets the man-eating Margaret Ann Russell (the outrageously sexy Angelina Jolie6 ), who all but rips his clothes off and impales herself on his trembling dick. Excuse me, but why? She’s stunning, the daughter of a senator, with enough sexual energy to exhaust the U.S. Marines and the French Foreign Legion combined. Why does she want to mate with the most boring Wasp on the planet?
Well, so that he can get her pregnant7 and thus “betray” poor angelic Laura, that’s why. So off Eddie goes to the OSS to fight first the Germans and then the Russkies, locking horns with Soviet Super Agent Stas Siyanko (Oleg Stefan), who tells “Mother” (Eddie’s code name) that he will make a formidable adversary. Eddie returns home after, hmmm, about six years’ absence. Well, he’s been busy. Maggie is transformed. We’re expecting a boozy, sneering trollop, but instead now she’s an angel too, just like Laura. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t cheat, always looks stunning, and a perfect mother! Excuse me (again), but what the fuck is going on here? Well, if Maggie did react “normally” to Eddie’s neglect, we might feel half sorry for him.
The years roll by, and in all of Eddie’s adventures, there’s one constant. He always fucks up. Every time he thinks he’s made a coup, it’s old Stas Siyanko, yanking his chain. Poor Eddie, he always gets it wrong. The capper comes when he learns that the Bay of Pigs disaster was all his fault!8 His son, Eddie, Jr. (Eddie Remayne), a sensitive, artistic lad, hears Dad talking about, I don’t know, “Bahia de Conchinos,” which poor junior, who really is awfully high-strung, happens to mention to his beautiful African girlfriend, who unfortunately happens to be working for Stas.9
De Niro’s “exposé” of the CIA lacks the fury of the old “New Left” denunciations, which saw the CIA as a president-murdering, peasant-oppressing, all-devouring monster. Instead, we get a collection of stolid white guys in Brooks Brothers suits who always get it wrong, tight-assed sissy britches who couldn’t park a bicycle straight, in the inimitable words of the (hopefully) inimitable George Wallace. Stripped of all its pretense,10 watching The Good Shepherd is pretty much like listening to a Sixties kid chewing out his dad:
Son: You’re such an asshole, dad! You treat Mom like shit! You treat me like shit! Your job is shit! Your whole life is shit!
Dad: [thinks] For this I sent him to Yale? Oy vey!
What is the point of this picture? That Wasps are queer? That if Eddie had married Laura there wouldn’t have been a Cold War? That everything that’s bad happens because Wasps are fucked up?
Although based on “fact,” in classic Hollywood fashion almost nothing in this picture is accurate. “Eddie Wilson” is based, more or less, on James Jesus Angleton, who did go to Yale, but came from Idaho, whose mother was a full-blooded Mexican.11 Angleton was hosed once by the Soviets, by the famous British spy Kim Philby,12 but spent most of his career hosing himself, bringing the CIA almost to a standstill by his endless suspicions about double agents.13
Angleton had no involvement in the Bay of Pigs, which was a failure, not because Castro knew where the invasion was going to be but because the invading “army” was pitifully under-sized, under-trained, and under-supplied. Richard Bissell, the CIA officer in charge,14 describes the endless shortcomings in his Reflections of a Cold Warrior, which can be supplemented by Don Bohning’s excellent study The Castro Obsession.15 As Bissell tells it, it was Eisenhower who relentlessly pushed the operation forward, refusing to acknowledge that no force less powerful, and less covert, than the 82nd Airborne was going to take out Castro. Kennedy compounded matters by constantly reducing U.S. support for the invasion, earning himself the contempt of the entire U.S. military, who despised him for sending men into combat and not backing them up.16
I’ve read that De Niro spent ten years laboring to bring The Good Shepherd to the screen. It’s hard to imagine why. This film struggles to get to the heart of Waspiness, and when it gets there, what does it find? Damned little. Yeats described Keats as “a small boy with his nose pressed up against the pastry shop window,” something Keats could have said of Yeats with equal justice, had their chronologies been reversed. De Niro and scriptwriter Eric Roth painstakingly load the dice against poor Eddie throughout the entire picture, for what purpose? If Eddie had been a good father, and a good husband, what would have happened? Would Eddie have not been fooled by old Stas time after time? Would we have won the Cold War more quickly? Would there have not been a Cold War at all? What’s most remarkable about The Good Shepherd is the pettiness of its conclusions.
The books written about the CIA surely number in the thousands. Naturally, it’s a fertile field for crackpots and ax-grinders. Tom Mangold’s bio of James Jesus Angleton, Cold Warrior, fills you in on J. J. Robin Winks’ Cloak and Gown purports to tell everything but everything about the Yale-CIA connection. I found his predilection for such words, and such things, as “greenswards” and “napery” off-putting, but if you want to know the absolute, stone-cold real deal on the story of the Whiffenpoofs, this is the book for you.
- After A Bronx Tale back in 1993, as “Anonymous,” who is so often on my case, pointed out on the BL blog. [↩]
- Coppola’s Godfather II, with its elaborate reconstruction of fifties America, strikes me as another obvious influence. In all three pictures, the achievement of period detail often seems to become an end in itself. [↩]
- I think Gabriel Macht (as “John Russell, Jr.”) is the pisser here, but frankly I couldn’t keep the cast straight. [↩]
- Matt modestly wraps a towel around his fanny as he makes his exit, depriving the scene of 99 percent of its edge. [↩]
- When we meet Laura, she isn’t wearing a hearing aid, which would likely mean that she’s totally deaf. She tells Ed he has to face her, so that she can read his lips. But if she were totally deaf, she wouldn’t be able to talk. She would have no idea what a word sounds like. Later, we see her wearing a hearing aid. We first see her without one because seeing her with one would be, you know, a downer. [↩]
- Oh, Angelina! You’ll come for the lips, you’ll stay for the tits! What a woman! [↩]
- A broad like that never heard of birth control? (Rubbers only, back then.) Give me a fucking break! [↩]
- Much of The Good Shepherd is given over to the elaborate deciphering of a reel of film that ultimately reveals what happened. But why couldn’t Eddie have figured things out almost from the get-go? Hmmm, white kid with a black chick. Say, my son’s in Africa, and we were talking about the operation at the summer house. You don’t suppose? It turns out that Stas sent the film, to let Eddie know he’d been hosed. So why did Stas meddle with the soundtrack, etc., requiring the CIA to spend countless hours reconstructing it? Well, to make the film longer. You solve the mystery right away, you got no picture. [↩]
- Hmmm. Distant, withdrawn father, beautiful, supportive mother, sensitive, artistic son? Haven’t I seen this movie before? Can you say “Albertine strategy”? [↩]
- For an old Washington hand like myself, the funniest bit is watching Ed go to work at the CIA in 1961. The building he enters is actually the U.S. Department of Agriculture, South Building, where my dad labored for thirty years in the Food and Nutrition Service. In those early days, the CIA was housed in the infamous “temporaries,” temporary office buildings erected on the Mall in World War I and not demolished until the mid-sixties, during the Johnson Administration. [↩]
- That’s where the “Hay-sus” came from. Angleton did not like people knowing about his middle name. Angleton’s code name (one of them) was “Mother,” and he studied poetry at Yale, as Eddie does. [↩]
- Angleton hung with Philby quite a bit in the early fifties, meeting with him for long drinking bouts. Afterwards, Angleton would write up memos describing all the information he thought he’d obtained. When Philby was conclusively identified as a spy, Angleton destroyed them all. [↩]
- Angleton was convinced that such events as the Sino-Soviet split were deliberate disinformation on the part of the Soviets. Consequently, Soviet defectors who confirmed the split were labeled double agents. Angleton worried a lot that Henry Kissinger might be a mole. In classic bureaucratic fashion, he hoarded information and feuded with everyone. He was forced to resign in 1974 and, naturally, given a medal to shut him up. People are generally given medals in Washington to shut them up. If you’re dead and you’re given a medal, you might have actually deserved it. But if you’re alive, you probably got it because you didn’t deserve it. [↩]
- In the film, Eddie gets a promotion, even though his own incompetence led to the failure of the invasion. In “real life,” Bissell was forced to resign, as was his superior. [↩]
- Histories of the Bay of Pigs are littered with comments by participants along the lines of “I wish I had spoken up,” “I wish I had protested,” “I wish I had offered my resignation.” The real moral seems to be that when an elected official tells a bureaucrat to do something, he usually does it. [↩]
- Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, and Admiral Arleigh Burke, who were on the board of review for the Bay of Pigs, claimed that with adequate air support the invasion might have succeeded. I’m not the director of the CIA or an admiral, but I think they were disgusted by John Kennedy’s cowardice and by Bobby Kennedy’s hysterical over-reaction to the disaster. After the Bay of Pigs, Bobby headed up “Operation Mongoose,” a pathetic exercise in revenge. Among other things, Attorney General Kennedy arranged for Department of Justice staffers to meet with gangsters to discuss assassinating the head of state of a foreign nation. What is it about being attorney general that makes men want to disobey the law? [↩]