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THE GOOD SHEPHERD

14-03-2007

Now that's what you call a cast…Bobby De Niro (who also directed), Angelina Jolie, and Matt Damon. But would a film about the birth of the CIA prove compulsive for British viewers? Mike Drayton is our man with the pick n' mix

The Good Shepherd is a thoughtful and politically astute film about the birth and early days of America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The movie is nearly three hours long but it never fails to be engrossing because of the excellence of the performances, the terrific script by Eric Roth and the fluid direction of Robert DeNiro.

It follows the life of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who is recruited into the fledgling agency prior to World War two, following his career up to the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The film is also about the unconscious reasons Wilson was attracted to being a spy, and how his job distorted his personality.

The film is told in flashbacks recalling his privileged if traumatic childhood - Wilson harbours a dark secret which is the key to his personality, and the movie.

Whilst studying English Literature at Yale, Wilson is recruited into a ridiculous but very powerful secret society, called Skull and Bones (members include George Bush Jnr and Snr). The initiation ceremony involves new members wrestling naked in mud whilst being urinated on by the onlookers, hmmm.

When America enters the war, Wilson is asked by one of his Skull and Bones brothers to join the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, and sent to wartime London and, later, post-war Berlin. Both cities are wonderfully shot in a ‘film noir', style reminiscent of ‘The Third Man'. In these outposts, Wilson learns his craft well and becomes a good spy.

On his return home General Bill Sullivan (DeNiro), asks him to be one of the founders of the new CIA. Fortunately, because of his impeccable background, Wilson does not fall foul of the Agency's equal opportunities policy espoused by Sullivan (“No niggers, Jews and only a few Catholics, because I'm one”).

Wilson becomes involved in a number of CIA misadventures, such as dropping thousands of locusts over the Cuban coffee plantations in an attempt to destroy the crop. He also develops an ambivalent relationship with his soviet counterpart, Ulysess.

The acting is superb throughout the film, with fine contributions from the Brits - John Sessions puts in a marvelous performance as a defecting Soviet spy and Michael Gambon is terrific as the homosexual British spymaster who teaches Wilson the trade.

Credit must go to Matt Damon who portrays Wilson as a repressed, poker-faced, conformist who becomes increasingly alienated from his feelings and sense of right and wrong as the film progresses and he becomes more involved in the duplicity of espionage.

Wilson is taciturn to the point of silence but Damon's silences speak volumes.

The film is stuffed with the symbols of this.

Wilson's hobby, which he seems to retreat to when particularly stressed, is making miniature ships in bottles.

This becomes a symbol for the character himself, with his desires for hope and freedom being quite literally bottled up. Also, in his romantic life, Wilson seems to have a particular fancy for deaf women.

He can only experience intimacy with those who cannot hear his secrets. We get a convincing and rounded picture of a deeply flawed, and because of this, deeply human character.

The Good Shepherd is an enthralling, intelligent and thought provoking film, with much to say about the psychology and politics of espionage. All in all, one to see. Five stars out of five.

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