Thursday, January 4, 2007

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006) Post 1 of 2

The Good Shepherd (2006, Theatrical, 2 hrs 40 min)
Director: Robert DeNiro
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie

[This is the first of two posts on The Good Shepherd. Post 2 discusses Clover's Seduction of Edward.]

From the beginning of the film until the end, The Good Shepherd centers on "truth or consequences;" -- that is, the consequences on an international scale when the truth is not told. As other reviewers have said, this is a film of big issues and big questions.

Much like the honor code made famous at military academies for their paradoxical character (always tell the truth and protect the honor of classmates), The Good Shepherd lays out the paradox of what spy work is all about — the uncomfortable marriage of truth and deception, for the better and for worse.

The movie's inspiration for this bifurcated quandary is the large inscription from St. John's Gospel (8:32) cut into the marble wall inside the CIA lobby:
You shall know the truth,
and the truth shall set you free.

The inscription was designed to encourage agents to tell the absolute truth to agency and government operatives so that accurate decisions can be made about foreign policy.

But we all know that deception is also part of CIA's charter. And therein lies the rub, the conundrum, the paradox -- the problem about which The Good Shepherd is all about.

Representing this dilemma is the movie's protagonist, Edward Wilson who during his years at Yale, pledges to the "secret" Skull and Bones society, and soon thereafter is recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (CIA's forerunner). Later when OSS morphs into the CIA Edward is appointed to head up the counter intelligence division and becomes involved in organizing the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Historically, that failure is connected to the CIA presenting incomplete truth, and the Kennedy administration's refusal to believe the truth that it was given.

In The Good Shepherd, the reason for the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion becomes the physical goal for our protagonist: Who is the mole in the CIA that leaked to the Russians and Cubans the exact day and location of the invasion? In the process of telling the story of that investigation, we learn about the moral dilemma faced by Edward Wilson, CIA, and the United States of America, over the years leading up to 1961.

As the John 8:23 inscription suggests, and Edward's experiences reinforce, the story's moral premise fittingly:
Deception leads to imprisonment; but
Truth leads to freedom.

The focus of the mole investigation is a mysterious envelope slipped under Edward's door; it contains a noisy reel-to-reel recording of two lovers in bed talking; and a grainy black and white photograph purportedly of the same couple. We learn quickly that the woman says to her lover:
I love you. People who really love each other can't have secrets. You're safe with me.
The man then says something mostly unintelligible in Spanish about "pigs."

The problem Edward currently faces is one he's learned over a lifetime. And in a series of flashbacks we learn who Edward is and why he finds himself with a failed invasion of Cuba.

As a boy, Edward learns that deception is often times easier than telling the truth, especially when you have someone's honor to protect. On one particular evening at home, the young Edward is taken aside by this father and asked if he knows what trust is? His Dad instructs him:
Trust is when you feel safe. If you lie to your friends you can't be trusted and you won't be safe.
As soon as Edward leaves his Dad, there's a GUNSHOT. Edward returns to find his Dad's bloody body and a suicide note. Edward hides the note, and tells the adults that come into the room that he witnessed an accident.

Thus begins Edward's education in deception.

The film is filled with metaphors about deception packaged cleverly as entertaining. Edward's hobby is building sailing ships that deceptively are erected inside a bottle or even smaller glass cases, one which is given to his son. At one point we watch Edward in flawless drag singing "I'm Called Little buttercup." (G&S H.M.S. Pinafore). His first girlfriend is deaf but she's good at detecting deception by reading lips. His initiation into Yale's Skull and Bones requires the telling of his peers a dark secret that they will hold over him just in case he misplaces his trust in their honor. His forced marriage to Clover (Angelina Jolie), whom he doesn't love, but she's the sister of a Skull and Bones brother and there is honor to protect. Within a week of the wedding, Edward receives his overseas orders—a tour of duty in London for 6 years during World War II learning the art of disseminating misleading information to the enemy. Later back at home, a defecting KGB agent lies about his identify and Edward believes him until it is too late. And another defecting KGB agent tells the truth but under Edward's direction the man is driven to suicide. There is an adulterous affair he keeps secret until his wife embarrasses him in front of his peers compromising his honor.

Several times during the story there are opportunities to "get out" and stop what he's doing. But each time he's drawn further into secrets than if he were to leave would make him a liability. It's a Godfather thing, some reviewers suggest. The more you know, the more difficult it is to leave without being packed in a box.

When he comes home from Europe he and Clover are estranged for a time, both admitting affairs. On Edward's part, it was his German secretary, whom he had to kill when she was found out.

About half way through the film (1 hr 30 min) Edward faces his Moment of Grace. He's aware that his family is suffering from the deceptions and the separation his work requires. At a Christmas party he spends most of time consulting with fellow spies and their boss, Bill Sullivan (Robert DeNiro). In this scene it is clear that the planning of deceptions has imprisoned Edward and kept him from his fatherly duties. Glances are exchanged between father and 6 year old son, the son wanting to be with his Dad. Clover, instead, takes Edward Jr. to Santa. While on Santa's lap, Jr. is more interest in his father in a distant room, and suddenly Edward Jr. wets his pants embarrassing Santa, Clover, and Edward.

But, Edward does the right thing. He lovingly steps in, as he should have done earlier, helps him. He takes his son to a bathroom, cleans him up, changes his clothes, and delivers him back to the party fresh and new. He's patience and . It is a special time for father and son to bond. Yet, a moment later, Edward's opportunity to embrace the virtuous side of the moral premise is rejected, and the deception and separation that it causes is resumed. Our protagonist follows the downward trajectory.

The Santa wetting incident is a metaphor for the separation from the truth that the OSS spies experience from their true mission -- protecting and loving their families. The more deception and the less truth, the more there are "accidents" and "mistakes" and with them the loss of honor for themselves and the United States of America.

From this point on, since Edward has embraced the vice side of the moral premise, things will only get worse for him, as he descends deeper into the prison his deception has created.

At the end of the story the deception catches up with Edward in much the same way that the U.S.'s deception about the Bay of Pigs catches up with the country.


The mole investigation identifies a location where the encounter took place. As Act 3 begins (2:09) Edward goes alone to investigate, fearing the worse. He comes to single room apartment in Leopoldville, Congo, where he finds what he must have been expecting, his son's belongings — on the bedside table is a small sailing ship deceptive erected in a small class case—his gift to his son years earlier. In the door behind him appears Edward's KGB nemesis, who reveals the secrets of the recording, the photograph and that his future daughter in law in a Russian operative.

The setup is an attempt by the Russians to force Edward to choose between country and his son. The Russians figure Edward will turn informant in exchange for his son's life. This is both the physical and psychological climax of the story. Edward's physical goal of finding the deceiver ironically meets with his psychological goal of protecting his family. He also realizes that it was his carelessness at a retreat just before the Bay of Pigs that allowed his son to overhear critical operational facts. Edward, inadvertently is the mole he's been seeking. In the process he has endangered that which he has promised to protect—his son and his country. His deception has slowly imprisoned him, and now it has imprisoned his son as well.

Edward gives no answer to the Russian agent.

After the Russian leaves, Edward Jr. appears, shocked to find his father in his room in the Congo. Edward confronts his son about his finance' being an "unfriendly". The son says he doesn't care and unleashes his anger at his Dad with his home life: "I never felt safe. Everything was always a secret." To which Edward replies: "I cannot protect you."

During this exchange, Edward is confronted with the accelerated, tragic side of the moral premise (Deception leads to imprisonment). In this case it's an emotional imprisonment. He has failed not only as a spy, but also as a father. He became a spy in part to fulfill his father duties of protection, and at this instant the God-like persona of CIA crashes around him. At that same instant, the bells of the nearby church begin to ring. It is an omen of grace, but at this moment Edward, an irreligious man for all we know, does not see or hear God's presence. He's found the enemy and it is himself. He is trapped, and not only because of him have lives been lost at the Bay of Pigs and endangering his country's freedom, but his son is facing death and compromise, and Edward is facing the possibility of being a traitor. There is seemingly no exit, and the Russians want an answer quickly.

A few minutes later in the film, Edward delivers his answer to the Russian agent in the lobby of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The room is large and busy with school children. Off camera a children's choir sings.

Edward declines the Russian's offer, explaining that it is really not a threat. He quickly and efficiently disarms the Russian incursion and protecting this son from danger. As the two men are about to part, the Russian agent's secretary asks to borrow a dollar so he can buy a gift at the museum's gift shop. The camera focuses on Edward's hands as he deftly takes a single dollar bill and hands it to the Russian secretary. We can't read the serial numbers, but the scene is a reprise from a scene at the movie's beginning. The shot suggest that the Russian agent's secretary is really working for the Americans, and Edward just passed him instructions.

Now, underscoring this entire scene are two songs being sung by the children in the background. Recall that often times film background music is intended to communicate the internal mood of the character we're following. The first song is:

He's got the whole world in his hands.
He's got the whole wide world in his hands...
He's got everybody here, in his hands,
He's go everybody here in his hands...
He's got the whole World in his hands.
We might suspect they're talking about God. But Edward's deft display of spy vs. spy one-up-man-ships, suggests that it is Edward and CIA, who have things under control. We even see this in the close-up of Edward's hand with the passing of the dollar bill.

Secondly, the children's choir sings "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore." An innocent enough song except historically it's a rowing song used by men in a small boat, and the need for strong arms to get the occupants out of troubled waters and safely to land. In the context of the movie, there is the suggestion that the good shepherd -- Edward Wilson -- and by extension CIA, is that strong arm that pulls the situation to safety. Edward's deft handling of the KGB's secretary reinforces this.

Also recall the dialogue about why the article "the" is never used in front CIA. The reason given is because when we invoke God, we never say "the God." In the film it's a sarcastic reference of CIA God-like persona or arrogance.

Now, many Catholics may interpret this scene much differently. They may envision the person rowing the boat is none other than the Archangel St. Michael. We're in his boat called humanity, we're coming out of the cold war, and he's rowing with all his might.

Recall that the 20th century was the most violent century in the history of mankind, and the cold war, about which The Good Shepherd is principally about, caps that period of time. Catholics may recall the story of events in 1884 when Pope Leo XIII after celebrating Mass, collapses. When he comes around the pope relates how he saw a vision of Jesus and Satan battling in front of the Tabernacle. In Jobian fashion Satan taunts Jesus that the Church can be destroyed easily if it wasn't for Christ's protection of it. Jesus, having faith in his father's protection of the Church, gives it over to Satan for testing during the 20th century. So shocking was the vision that Pope Leo XIII instituted several precautions. One was that after every Mass, Christians were to pray together a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel that goes like this:

St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and thou, O Prince of heavenly host, by the power of God, Thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen

As the museum scene ends with Edward and his Russian counter part departing, the children finish singing about Michael and his boat. Some Catholics may see the KGB as the personification of the evil spirits Pope Leo XIII warned about as they wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Together, with Edward, we're in a small boat, facing troublesome sea, and it is Michael The Archangel who is rowing us all safely to shore. It is a quiet but poignant climax to Act 3.

In the Dénouement, Edward, as head of counter intelligence, takes further steps to minimize risk to the country and to his family. In the last scene, as Edward enters the bowels of CIA, we get the sense that he is emotionally drained by a life of deception that sees no end to the work yet to do.

Maybe that's it. Deception is counter to intelligence

(See second post on this film: The Good Shepherd Take 2 that deals with Clover's seduction of Edward.)


Christopher said...

You didn't mention that Edward ends up killing the girl WHO IS PREGNANT - with his grandchild!

Deception kills, literally.

Christopher said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris Simmons said...

Thanks i knew the dollar at the end signified something but i missed when he used the word cardinal then i remembered it from beginning.

Chris Simmons said...

Excellent breakdown of movie

Linda Moore said...

Wow it took ur explanation to pull all of this together plus watching it 8 times! !!!


Now I fully understand this film critically. Thanks

Unknown said...

I interpreted the dollar bill at the end as an understanding that in the future, Ulysses can redeem his "small favor" he asked for with the bill, because after all, Ulysses knows Edwards modus operandi, and Edward knows that he knows, thus a mutual acknowledgement of enemies AND allies (when necessary) for the sake of preventing another world war.