De Niro wants the film to be political, but he is too cavalier with historical events to truly reap the full impact of his message.
The Good Shepherd came out more than a decade ago, deeply into George W. Bush’s second term. The country was wracked by paranoia about intelligence services overreaching the bounds of good sense and legality in the name of national security. This context is crucial to the film, which involves the ever-present threat of surveillance, waterboarding and secret back room dealings that determine the fate of the world. In spite of being very much a product of 2006, The Good Shepherd remains a worthwhile film in 2017. This has less to do with its overt political messages, however, and more to do with its character study of protagonist Edward Wilson (Matt Damon).
Wilson is an anti-hero, but he is not just another of the by-now-overdone white-men-in-crisis that have populated TV screens in the years since The Good Shepherd was released (the film predates the premiere of “Mad Men”). Wilson presents a unique case study in masculinity, whereas the typical anti-hero generally serves as a claxon warning of unrestrained testosterone. Wilson is introduced to the audience delicately slipping an ornately-crafted miniature ship into a glass bottle; a few scenes later, he is displayed performing in a college musical in full drag. His sex drive is minimal, he writes poetry and he is never directly violent in the film.
Yet, Wilson is a man – and one of violence. He happily joined the exclusive Skull and Bones secret society at Yale, was a founding member of both the OSS and CIA and was instrumental in multiple coups and attempted coups during the early Cold War. His violence comes from the shadows, via coded letters and whispered phone conversations. While director Robert De Niro clearly intends for Wilson to serve as a personification of the CIA and the intelligence services more broadly, Wilson does also reveal something about the nature of masculinity. He is a committed patriot, resourceful, diligent and goal-driven. And even with those virtuous character traits, Wilson is a monster. He oversees a man being tortured, engineers the overthrow of the Guatemalan government and approves of the horrific murder of his son’s pregnant fiancé. The Good Shepherd levies penetrating questions on the nature of masculinity while eluding any sort of answer.
De Niro wants the film to be political, but he is too cavalier with historical events to truly reap the full impact of his message. The Good Shepherd offers a rather modest thesis: the intelligence services are necessary in a world full of weapons and depraved people, but they should never be more than ancillary in a stable democratic society. The underlying message is obvious: in society today (meaning 2006), the secretive dealings and obscure tactics of the CIA and its ilk are out of control and threatening the fabric of U.S. society.
In the service of this argument, The Good Shepherd presents two case studies where CIA intervention may have been necessary but something went awry during the process of intervention with dire consequences. They are real historic events: the Guatemalan coup of 1954 and the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The film butchers the history, and not just in the sense of changing a few details for the sake of good narrative (it does that, too, for the record). Eric Roth’s script, in fact, has rewritten these events in an egregious and morally-dubious manner. The film makes the CIA’s participation in the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratic government appear defensible by placing Soviet advisors on the ground there; no Soviet men were present nor any Soviet ties ever discovered. The CIA’s illegal coup is a massive international crime and a violation of the most basic standards of the international state system. In its treatment of Cuba, too, The Good Shepherd errs in a truly harmful way, positing Fidel as a Soviet puppet from 1953 onward. In truth, Castro did not turn to the Soviet Union until months after taking power in the 1959 and, it is well documented, was treated as a folk hero by many journalists and youths in the U.S. throughout the ‘50s.
In twisting these events to favor the character arc of Edward Wilson, even though it means ignoring U.S. guilt for its direct involvement in death and destruction in Latin America, The Good Shepherd surrenders the moral high ground it claimed with its rather meager thesis about the dangers of secret services in democratic societies. The Guatemalan coup in 1954 led directly to the Guatemalan genocide of the ‘80s, a blood-letting for which U.S. responsibility was so plain that President Clinton issued an official apology. It is not some minor event that is tangential to the story of Edward Wilson and his CIA colleagues; it is the story. The Good Shepherd ignoring this challenges the seemingly-good intentions of its creators; it cannot portray the US as a reluctant superpower AND also be lauded as a film speaking truth to power.