The Good Shepherd (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is director Robert DeNiro's epic-length fictionalization of the formation of the CIA.

That's a difficult subject to tackle. The intrinsic nature of the CIA means that its public history is filled with disinformation, and that portions of the history, perhaps large portions, have never become public at all. Even the portions which are known are confusing. Years after Glasnost, with many of the old KGB files now available to scholars, there is still considerable debate, for example, about whether certain Russian defectors were actually planted by the KGB. The screenwriter's solution to the inherent uncertainties was to fictionalize the story, consolidating some characters and creating others from whole cloth, while offering a slightly different version of some events. The resultant project is a strange blend of reality and fiction, with the viewer left in the dark about which is which.

The historical facts behind the Bay of Pigs fiasco, for example, are told as they actually happened, but the account is given a completely fictional overlay. According to the version, the Cubans knew about the invasion plans because one of the CIA's bureau chiefs (counter-intelligence) had a discussion which could be overheard by his son, and the son's girlfriend was actually a KGB mole. As far as I know, none of that has any basis in fact, although there does appear to have been a American leak, and the KGB did warn Castro in advance of the imminent invasion. In reality, it was a completely different branch of CIA which was involved in the invasion, not counter-intel, and three senior CIA officers were forced to resign, including the director of intelligence, Allen Dulles, and the director of plans, Richard Bissell.

On the other hand, the famous case of Golitsyn and Nosenko has been completely re-tooled to make it more cinematic. In real life, they were two former KGB officers who offered contradictory information to the CIA. Golitsyn claimed that he was a defector and that Nosenko was a KGB plant pretending to be a defector. Nosenko claimed it was the other way around. The fictional version in The Good Shepherd changed the story in two fundamental ways. First, the two Russians were both claiming to be the same guy! Second, the CIA's director of counter-intelligence eventually found out that the one he chose to believe had been the wrong one, and rectified his mistake. In reality, the director of counter-intel continued to believe the wrong guy long after his colleagues and the FBI had taken the opposite position.  Contrary to the film's portrayal, the "wrong guy" was never executed or arrested, but lived in the West to a ripe old age and wrote two books about his life in the intelligence game. He remained friends with the ousted director of counter-intel who had believed him.

Other parts of the story are virtually non-fictional. The Matt Damon character, the director of counter-intelligence, is primarily based on James Jesus Angleton, the same fascinating figure who formed the core of Norman Mailer's fictional "Harlot." The first half of the movie is virtually a biographical account of Angleton's involvement in WW2, the OSS (CIA's predecessor), and the creation of the CIA. Like the Damon character, Angleton did graduate from Yale, where he was the editor of the poetry review, and he did go on to be trained in intelligence by the British agent Kim Philby, who later turned out to be a KGB agent. (He was the famous "third man.") Like the Damon character, Angleton was known to the Soviets as "Mother," and was known to be an abstemious workaholic and an insomniac. The screenwriter has also chosen, presumably for reasons of economy,  to incorporate elements of other CIA officers into the Damon character, so there is not a direct one-to-one correspondence between Angleton and "Edward Wilson." In fact, Angleton's career was not profoundly affected by the Bay of Pigs invasion. Unlike several other senior CIA officials, he was a survivor of that incident, and his power base may even have benefited from the elimination of his most powerful rivals. Angleton was finally undone by his Nixon-era use of the CIA to spy on student activists and other anti-war figures, which was done in direct violation of a CIA charter which forbids the domestic surveillance of American citizens. Angleton, like Nixon himself, suspected that the anti-war movement was actually being manipulated by KGB.

Now that I think about it, somebody should write a mini-series about the real Angleton. (There's no way one could cover the subject in a single film.) His life and his perceptions between 1940 and 1975 offer an unique spin on America in that period.  By the time he was forced out, the paranoid Angleton had burned just about every possible bridge by accusing several prominent North Americans of being manipulated by the KGB, including Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau! But the Good Shepherd is not that story.

Since the Good Shepherd story is not the absolute truth, and in any case many parts of the truth are still unknown to us, we cannot evaluate it as the history of CIA, even though the film seems to take itself seriously enough to invite such an interpretation. A more appropriate approach would be to draw a parallel between this film and The Godfather. The Good Shepherd is as accurate an account of the formation of the CIA as The Godfather is of the formation of the modern crime syndicates.

We therefore have to measure the film's value as entertainment. In that respect, it fails in many respects. First of all, the film has no characters we can identify with. The Matt Damon character, who is on screen almost continuously, is neither entertaining nor likeable. He is a man of few words and fewer facial expressions. (One, to be exact. In a world full of this guy, Jack Lord could play Mr. Bean.) His intentions are good, but he is a calculating man and totally devoid of warmth. Once he graduates from Yale, he has no friends, tells no jokes, spouts no interesting words. His entire life consists of CIA business and he has virtually abandoned his family.

And he's the most likeable character.

Whatever sympathy we might have felt for the character as he matured is negated by director DeNiro's strange decision not to age the character in any significant way. Damon looks almost exactly the same in the earliest and latest scenes. At one point there is a transition where his son goes instantly from five-year-old to college senior, but Damon looks exactly the same in both time periods. (Maybe he changed his glasses.) This is actually quite confusing since the film jumps back and forth around some two decades of history and we can't instantly anchor ourselves by noting Damon's appearance.

Lacking identification with a character, we look for some involvement in the story, but its structure is not very compelling. The film begins with some post-analysis of the leaks in the Bay of Pigs planning, and the entire story is driven by the search for the mysterious source of the leak, as well as a look at the techniques used by the analysts to pinpoint that source. I suppose that means I've already spoiled the film for you above, but practically speaking you will not be held spellbound waiting to see the solution to this mystery. At the beginning of the film I guessed wrong about the source of the leak, but by the time the revelation was finally made, the surprise was already totally spoiled. In fact, we "get it" faster than the Damon character, although we do not fully understand everyone's motivations until he does.

So the film is not historical, the storyline is not especially compelling, the timelines are somewhat confusing because of the aging factor, and the main character is totally devoid of personality, making it a low energy film. Extremely low energy. I mean Matt Damon is on screen for virtually the full running time (approximately 3000 hours), and he shows no emotion and rarely speaks. Lively stuff, eh? This is not much of a recommendation, is it?  And yet I do recommend the film in a way, because it holds a certain fascination. I finished with a real ambivalence toward The Good Shepherd. I found it to be overlong and sometimes boring, and I hated the non-ending. And yet the film's gravitas managed to persuade me that I should pay attention to it for my own good. In certain respects, the film seems to give us a great deal of "feel" for how the counter-intel battle worked between KGB and CIA, and that was quite an intriguing chess game. Of course chess is not much of a spectator sport, but the film's presentation of the match has elegance, heft, and a subtlety to it that commands our attention and respect and forbids us to yawn or leave, as if we were listening to the war stories of a soldier who had thrown himself in the way of a bullet to save our lives.



  • DVD features not yet determined



Martina Gedeck shows her upper areola (above the nipple.)

The Critics Vote ...


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. I'm writing this while the film is still in theaters. It looks like it will do between $50 and $60 million. Opening weekend was $14m.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+, slick movie, thoughtful, interesting in certain ways, but really needs more energy and/or tighter editing.

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