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The Good Shepherd

OGA — "Other Government Agency" — is just one of a few shorthand phrases used to describe the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States' secretive and storied intel service dedicated to gathering and analyzing information, as well as engaging in covert actions, related to interests outside of the nation's borders. Other terms are heard now and then — "the company," "the farm," "spooks" — but "OGA" has become a bit of slang within other elements of the U.S. government when referring to the men and women in the big building at Langley, Va. With the extensive growth of electronic monitoring and cryptology, it has been suggested that the National Security Agency (NSA) gathers and analyzes the vast majority of the nation's intelligence data, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains all domestic counter-intelligence tasks. However, the CIA has earned a disproportionately high profile in the public consciousness, thanks in part to books and movies, but also because of notable controversies and blunders. To be fair, gathering human intelligence, or HUMINT, requires long, painstaking hours of work with subjects who can't always be trusted, and the Agency is often expected to produce results under difficult circumstances. Successes — such as monkeywrenching the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — are not always advertised. Failures — including the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion — have dented presidential legacies. And there have been no shortage of controversies to provide an endless forum for debate: alleged drug smuggling, "secret wars," support of non-democratic regimes, and the Bush administration's policy of extraordinary rendition for suspected terrorists — all merely touch on what can happen when a cloak-and-dagger operation from World War II is pressed into the front lines of global postwar politics.

Robert DeNiro's The Good Shepherd (2006) attempts to put a human face on the early years of the CIA, even if the faces we meet are more compromised than noble. Matt Damon stars as Edward Bell Wilson, the Agency's first director of covert operations, who realizes soon after the Bay of Pigs invasion — when Fidel Castro successfully repelled an attack by CIA-backed anti-communist Cubans — that the entire operation was burnt from the start, and that he may be very near the mole. The story then winds back to Wilson's days as a poetry student at Yale, where his status as the son of a U.S. Navy admiral earned him admission to the exclusive "Skull & Bones" fraternity. Wilson also falls for a fellow student (Tammy Blanchard), but an ill-advised night of passion with socialite Margaret "Clover" Russell (Angelina Jolie) produces a pregnancy, and then a marriage. World War II breaks out during Wilson's college years, during which he is recruited by FBI agent Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin) to spy on a professor who's an alleged Nazi sympathizer (Michael Gambon). The job leads to a wartime posting with the government's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in London, thanks to Gen. Bill Sullivan (De Niro) — it's where Wilson acquires his tradecraft with the help of Sgt. Ray Brocco (John Turturro), as well as British agent Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup). By the time the war ends, Wilson returns home to a wife and child he hasn't seen in years, but before he can begin to re-establish a personal life he's asked to take a leading role in the organization that will replace the OSS: The CIA. However, he soon realizes that fighting the Cold War on an international scale is far more intricate, and morally complicated, than hunting down Nazi spies on dark London streets.

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The Good Shepherd takes a dim view of U.S. intelligence activities from 1946 to 1961, although it doesn't play as an anti-American screed or cautionary tale. There's no mistaking the all-white, insular Ivy League elite that founded America's spy community, but at no point does the story seem to suggest that a foreign intelligence service isn't vital to the nation's security, or that America isn't worth the fight. Instead, the intrigue plays out with the subtlety of a John le Carré novel, where the compromises are not necessarily the product of moral defects, but instead the inherent, inescapable result of all covert operations, large and small. The very idea of "trust" isn't just in short supply — as Wilson is told more than once by his mentors, it simply does not exist in their profession, and the successful spy is one who learns how to distrust everything. It's the sort of work that few are suited for, and in Edward Wilson we are given a glimpse of the sort of man who can compartmentalize his emotions to such a degree that he seems to have abandoned the joys that life is expected to provide — love, friends, and family live in a distant shadow of his equally obscure career. The narrative is challenging, because Wilson at times threatens to become little more than a cipher in his own story, but it remains interesting thanks to Matt Damon's performance, which asks us to continually guess at his character's deepest thoughts. Wilson is known for his silence, both to friends and enemies. "What is your weakness?" his Soviet counterpart "Ulysses" (Oleg Stefan) asks him, admitting that his own is a love for the Russian cold. Wilson's superior, Philip Allen (William Hurt), admits a weakness for chocolate. And we soon learn that Wilson's weakness is the worst a spy can have: women, and one of the factors that appears to have led to the Bay of Pigs disaster. As might be expected, Robert De Niro's direction of The Good Shepherd is competent, at times elegant, and if it lacks the flamboyance of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, in part it's because this is very much an actor's film (it's also clear that De Niro's presence behind the camera allowed him to assemble his fine supporting cast). "I want us to be America's eyes and ears," he says in his small part as Gen. Sullivan, "not its heart and soul," implying that moral pragmatism, rather than purity, will inform the CIA's mission. "We make sure the wars are small ones," Wilson later says, unable to deny their existence. And if his final actions thrust him into the realm of anti-hero, at best we might suspect that his spiritual corruption is the price that is to be paid — at least by those who are paid to trust nobody at all.

Universal's DVD release of The Good Shepherd offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements for the nearly three-hour film are limited to seven deleted scenes, with a "play all" option. Keep-case.

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