Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger decks the halls with Santa(s) in his super-fantastic
Christmas classic, Jingle All The Way.
** TRACK SANTA AROUND THE WORLD. With a little help from NORAD.
** THE GOOD SHEPHERD. This long (2 hours, 40 minutes), deliberately paced film directed by Robert DeNiro, who plays a supporting role as a thinly fictionalized version of OSS spymaster General William Donovan, tries to tell an origin story of the CIA via the fictionalized tale of legendary/notorious CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton. The famous, or infamous, mole hunter of later years is presented here as “Edward Wilson,” a conveniently central figure in all aspects of the CIA, portrayed by Matt Damon in decidedly non-”Jason Bourne” mode.
Written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth, who has dealt with somewhat similar material before in Munich and The Insider, The Good Shepherd is less successful. It follows the arc of the Angleton stand-in’s life from Yale in the 1930s to the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. (The US, for those not doing the history honor society thing, organized and backed a disastrous invasion of Communist Cuba by Cuban exiles.) The film, incidentally, posits the failure at the Bay of Pigs to a leak to a Soviet agent. Actually, it may have been due more to the fact that it was a completely idiotic plan.
It’s an interesting film, but, unlike Munich and The Insider, an honorable failure. There’s the pacing, which is not brisk. And there’s the central character, played with little affect and little more subtext by the estimable Damon, who is playing the character he’s given. The fictional Angleton figure is something of a cipher, relatively emotionless. His patriotism seems more a function of his emotionally closed off state and desire to please … As a young boy, he covers up the suicide of his high-ranking father, who was about to be disgraced, and as a young man is eager to betray a mentor. He’s a member of the Skull and Bones secret society, like President George W. Bush, which is presented as a founding cabal of the CIA.
He ends up married, through a misadventure that you might guess, to a senator’s daughter played by Angelina Jolie. Who then plays the wildly cast against type role of neglected wife. She’s fine in it, as is most everyone else in their roles in an outstanding cast, but a distraction from the overall gray tone of the film.
While he seemingly bizarrely ignores his spectacular wife — not because she is irritating, but because that’s just the closed off kind of guy he is — Damon’s character is off propagandizing and destabilizing governments. In a direct parallel to the real Angleton, he accepts and benefits from a KGB defector, who seems almost too good to be true. Then another defector emerges, who claims to be the first man.
Failed lie detector tests ensue, with the proferred explanation that Russians usually fail lie detector tests, due to the national soul, or something like that. All of that ends badly. In the murky conclusion of the affair, the name of a real life KGB officer, Yuri Modin, is tossed into the mix. Probably something of a writer’s in joke that no one will get, Modin was the real life controller of the Cambridge Five, famous Soviet double agents in British intelligence.
Chief among them was Kim Philby, who nearly became head of British intelligence (MI6) before being found out. (Yes, that would have made him James Bond’s boss.) Philby used to lunch every week with Angleton, who was apparently none the wiser. Angleton became the great mole hunter of the CIA. Having failed to tumble to Philby (who ended up in a vodka-drenched existence in Moscow, the Soviet honors for his treachery mostly posthumous), he later found moles and Soviet agents everywhere, disappearing down the rabbit hole of brilliant paranoia.
This latter part — in other words, that for which Angleton is famous — is not in the movie. That would make a great movie. This story is interesting, but not nearly so dramatic, notwithstanding its depiction of dramatic events. I think this movie is trying to say that the CIA was the invention of cold WASP elitists, who became utterly ruthless in the manipulation of information and the exercise of power. (And I of course deeply resent this callous stereotyping of my ethnic background.) The film plays stylistically and in terms of some of its tone in the manner of The Godfather II. In fact, at one point Francis Ford Coppola, one of its producers, was going to direct it. But it doesn’t reach anywhere near those heights, constricted as it is by its conception of its central character.