Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Me and my friends went to see “The Good Shepard” Saturday night, a movie about the inception (and deception) of the CIA surrounding the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cold War. It was directed by/produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Robert De Niro (who also starred), with screenplay by Eric Roth of “Forrest Gump” fame. Cast included (in addition to De Niro) Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Tim Hutton, and Joe Pesci among others. Seriously star-studded, and some of those casting decisions were spot-on awesome (Crudup and Baldwin especially). However, the two main characters, Jolie and Damon, I believe were a terrible mis-cast. Neither really embodied what they were meant to. Damon was playing Edward Wilson and Jolie was playing his long-suffering and ignored wife, Clover. However Damon appeared stiff and uncomfortable in the role, and Jolie over-dramatic. That said, the rest of the acting in the movie was top-notch.

As mentioned by Crimelibrary’s feature, this movie is loosely based on real events and the life of notorious CIA spy-catcher James Jesus Angleton. The character Damon plays is supposed to reflect Angleton:

Few CIA spooks have received as much attention as Angleton. None has ever been as controversial. His critics claim his paranoid-fueled hunt for a Soviet KGB mole burrowed inside the CIA almost destroyed the agency when Angleton ran its counter-intelligence operations from 1948 until he was forced to resign in 1975. His admirers insist Angleton’s unflinching eye kept the CIA from being penetrated by skilled KGB agents during the height of the Cold War.

A tall, stooped chain-smoker, who usually dressed in black and whose hobbies were writing poetry and growing orchids, Angleton was known by the codename “Mother” and has been the inspiration behind characters in numerous spy novels.

“The Good Shepard” follows Wilson from his college days in Yale, where he outed his Nazi sympathizing mentor, to his role in the CIA in counter-intelligence around the Bay of Pigs. The movie is well crafted and builds a lot of suspense, as any good spy thriller should. Everything in the movie centers around betrayal, and how you can’t really trust anyone. Wilson’s KGB counter-part, codenamed “Ulysses”, is an especially interesting character. A particular scene involving Ulysses’ identity, with someone else claiming to be him, is really hard-hitting in an Abu-Ghraib kind of way. Let’s just say dosing someone with LSD as a truth serum isn’t the best idea the CIA has ever had.

The movie is long, so go in prepared for an epic that is worth the time. It requires a bit of suspension of disbelief in regard to babyfaced Damon (um, at some points he looks younger than his 20 year old son). And there is one quote that made me cringe for its cheesy “no one says that in real life” quality: “Someone once asked me why there isn’t a “the” in front of CIA. I said, Do you put a “the” in front of God?” Blech. But, hey its Hollywood, so those one-liners should be expected. I say go see it, I really enjoyed it, despite its minor flaws.


  1. #1 Minnesotachuck
    January 8, 2007

    Shelly, I also enjoyed the movie. However I disagree with you on your assessment of the Matt Damon character: stiffness, opacity and social distance was the essence of the Eward Wilson. Ex CIA agent Larry Johnson had a backgrounder post on the flick a week or so ago:
    He notes that “Wilson” is based on Richard Bissell as well as James Jesus Angleton. I think there’s also a splash of William Colby in there, especially the thick glasses. Colby, who headed the Vietnam CIA station during much of the war and later headed the entire agency, was about as opaque looking as one can get.

  2. #2 MattR
    January 8, 2007

    Shelly, I completely agree with your assesment on Jolie and Damon.

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 8, 2007

    A tall, stooped chain-smoker, who usually dressed in black and whose hobbies were writing poetry and growing orchids…

    Sounds like the classic latent homosexual. Did he and J. Edgar Hoover ever get it on?

  4. #4 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 8, 2007

    I’m going to have to agree with Minnesotachuck. I think Damon did a great job portraying a man who internalized his emotions his entire life. Sure he looked stiff but I think this was how one would expect someone like that to look.

    Jolie on the other hand was forgetable.

  5. #5 Shelley
    January 8, 2007

    James Jesus Angleton’s biographer had this to say (from the Crimelibrary link):

    “Matt is short, blue-eyed, blonde-headed and handsome,” Mangold said, “but Jim was tall, gaunt, and half-Mexican with dark features.”

    Surely as with any Hollywood movie, liberties are taken with the script. But I think on this one they chose a famous and handsome face rather than someone who would have seemed more real (to me). This description brings to mind someone that looks like Richard Belzer, and around that age, rather than Damon. Maybe even Benicio Del Toro if they had to have a big star. I suppose you might argue its not suppost to be him, but then the movie even uses his actual codename ‘Mother.’ I acutally like Damon, but his role in this just left me feeling empty-handed. Soul-less, cold, and emotionally repressed I’ve seen, de Niro himself is a master. But here I just felt like he wasn’t there; none of the attendant power exuded from Damon like one would expect from a CIA head. More like an Eagle Scout in over his head and trying to impress the grownups with his seriousness. But, thats just me. 🙂

  6. #6 Bob Abu
    January 8, 2007

    JJ Angleton was supposed to be involved in JFK’s public execution.

    He also wrote some terrible poetry.

    Article below about JJ and JFK

  7. #7 bernarda
    January 9, 2007

    An excellent fictional account of the CIA is Robert Littell’s “The Company”.

    “This impressive doorstopper of a book is like a family historical saga, except that the family is the American intelligence community. It has all the appropriate characters and tracks them over 40 years: a rogue uncle, the Sorcerer, a heavy-drinking chief of the Berlin office in the early Cold War days; a dashing hero, Jack McAuliffe, who ages gracefully and never loses his edge; a dastardly turncoat, who for the sake of the reader will not be identified here, but who dies nobly; a dark genius, the real-life James Jesus Angleton, who after the disclosure that an old buddy, British spy Kim Philby, had been a Russian agent all along, became a model of paranoia”

  8. #8 mutinyco
    January 9, 2007

    Psssttt… It’s ‘Shepherd’ not ‘Shepard’…

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