Having never seen his other movies, I still should have realized Robert DeNiro was going to be a perfectionist as a director, as he is as an actor. It’s been so long that I had almost forgotten the pleasure of watching a film as nuanced and rich as The Good Shepherd. There wasn’t a wasted sequence in the three hours it ran, and the irony didn’t escape me that half the theater walked out on a movie whose title implied the blissful masses were the CIA’s sheep.
DeNiro’s character, based on Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan, once said that conservatives were those who believed people were flawed, and liberals were those who believed people could be changed. DeNiro’s film, particularly in this war, is a daring discussion about the motives, good or wrong, for sacrificing liberties (and how much!) at wartime.
Wild Bill, who ruthlessly hired socialists, liberals, and even communists in his intelligence battle, was a viciously pragmatic man, and he defended his men to the end when the OSS was investigated by the McCarthyists. He said “We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him…”
Understanding that man goes a long way towards understanding that the movie is about anti-hero Edward Wilson’s misunderstanding of the word “truth” in his passage into the intelligence underworld. There is the patriotic truth, where one’s country’s ideals take precedence and all harm unknown by its defenders are lies, unknowns, and untruths the CIA needs to unearth. And then there is the truth he found after opening his father’s letter, the personal truth upon which families, friends, and ultimately all foundational values, America is built upon. When a man decides, as Edward did, that as a citizen the truth you pursue is predetermined, you “ascend” your family and friends, immediate and national, and cannot trust anyone.
Joseph Palmi: You know, we Italians have our families and the church, the Irish have their homeland, the Jews their tradition, even the n*****s have their music. What do you guys have?
Edward Wilson: We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.
For the movie as debate of our times, I don’t think I need to wax more on the subject. But the film itself, however you may feel about the polemic, was crafted exquisitely. We didn’t see characters make decisions, we saw the consequences. We saw the emotional aftermath. We saw them make the same mistakes, fighting their character arc, and suffering for it. We saw his son walk in his steps, believing and not knowing. We saw the anger as Edward’s man Ray Brocco, unable to accept the real truth, unable to admit they were all fooled, bludgeon a man with forced confessions, only to fail. And at the end, we saw how the subtle passing of a dollar could be the surface of another world of deceit and misdirection, and the underworld continues stir.
Moviegoers who walk in expecting a thriller will walk out expecting a refund. The rest will be drawn into the irrevocably frightening backstage that James Jesus Angleton, the original good shepherd that Edward Wilson was based on, called the “wilderness of mirrors.“