Everybody has secrets to tell. My secrets are bigger than others.
— Edward Wilson (Matt Damon)
“People who really love each other can’t have secrets.” Spoken by a woman shown on grainy, black and white surveillance film, this romantic notion lies at the center of The Good Shepherd. A story of noxious spies and self-styling patriots, the film charts the beginnings of the Central Intelligence Agency as it’s embodied by a composite character named Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). As he listens to the tape again and again throughout the film, his technicians cut through noise and cloudy imagery to discover the identities of the woman and her male lover, deemed early on as “a stranger in our house,” that is, the traitor who ruins the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
As is the custom in such historically inclined sagas, Edward first appears as something of a naïf, a good kid attending Yale in 1939, yearning to be smart, exceptional, and approved by his professors and peers (the role extends through the Bay of Pigs, and is reportedly modeled on CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton). Young Edward is especially keen to please his poetry teacher Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon). As the film cuts back and forth in time, the background for Edward’s yearning becomes clear, a trauma having to do with his father, Thomas (Timothy Hutton), a former Secretary of the Navy whose reputed disloyalty makes trouble for his son among a new on-campus group he’s trying to join, the Skull and Bones.
According to The Good Shepherd, this infamously secret club is populated by privileged, fretful, angry young men whose hazing rituals include robes and masks, naked mud-wrestling, and literal peeing on pledges. This last is too much for Edward, who stomps away from the wrestling arena, towel wrapped around his mucky torso. Informed that the induction process is not “personal,” Edward takes a stand: “Getting pissed on is very personal.”
Partly funny and partly indicative of Edward’s thorough seriousness and self-righteousness, this contretemps lays the groundwork for his next set of inductions. Though he says he’s just a “poetry student,” that is, “not political,” Edward is drawn increasingly into groups of young men mentored by older ones, wherein he feels fathered and mostly cosseted, at least identified with other young men who look like him. They call themselves patriots, which means they must be simultaneously homosocial and heterosexual. Edward manages this balance in the most conventional ways. While he’s drawn to the sweet-natured, shy, and deaf Laura (Tammy Blanchard), he’s inevitably seduced by a classmate’s prodigiously beautiful sister, Clover (Angelina Jolie). When she stands over him at an upper-crusty affair, waggling her fingers at him by way of an invite onto the dance floor, the low-angled, point-of-view camera shows exactly why Edward cannot say no. Clover (real name Margaret) is stunning.
Unfortunately, once Edward ships off to WWII London to do some spy-work for the Office of Strategic Services, Clover is relegated to resentful 1950s housewife, stuck at home with baby Edward Jr. They’ve married because of her pregnancy, such that Clover comes to represent Edward’s obligations and the less demanding Laura his lost ideals. This schematic arrangement, leaving the women to denote Edward’s emotional options, reinforces the film’s version of the CIA’s founding as a history of corporate masculinity. Increasingly immersed in his work, Edward hires an efficient, scarily loyal secretary, Ray (John Turturro), and learns to negotiate with both the natty British spy Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup), and the dastardly Russian who calls himself “Ulysses” (Oleg Stefan).
Warned more than once to get out “while he still can,” Edward is repeatedly enticed by the sense of belonging. While he initially sees the group as a kind of boys’ club (no women allowed), his later understanding is at once cruder and more sophisticated. It’s not just men-only, but it’s a particular kind of men who are selected to join. Rigid morality is not the priority he once thought; indeed, lying, cheating, and murdering are necessary to protect borders and secrets, as is the perpetual realigning of affinities. Still, he believes in the primary fiction of the nation, carefully delineated and redelineated according to changing conditions.
Indeed, for Edward, the CIA forms a circular logic: members define the mission and vice versa. Agency founder Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro) recruits him by describing who gets in (“No Jews or Negroes, and very few Catholics”) and what’s at stake, at least in the abstract: “This isn’t a bunch of fraternity boys sitting around playing with their pricks. This is for real. This is for America.” Right. And “America” takes a particular formulation. Interviewing a mafia don, Edward hears him extol identities bestowed by rituals and collective histories (Italians have “family,” Jews have “tradition,” blacks have “music”). “What do you got?” asks Palmi (Joe Pesci), at which point Edward lays down his trump card” “The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
Such arrogance allows Edward — and by extension here, the CIA — to operate without much regret or conspicuous consequence. The most compelling point here is that the Agency’s workers are stodgy bookkeeper types rather than action heroes, ensuring national “security” by keeping secrets more than kicking ass (Edward appears repeatedly building miniature ships in bottles). (This doesn’t mean they don’t engage in completely brutal activities, as several interrogation scenes reveal.)
The problem his chosen profession poses for Edward is both prosaic and sensational. At one level, the cost of his patriotism is reduced to a common device, Clover’s recurring complaint that he is disloyal to her and their son. Though Edward more or less endures her outbursts (“I’m living with a ghost!”), he is on occasion visibly struck by Edward Jr.’s manifest anxieties (he wets his pants, he withdraws emotionally, and eventually, he wants to work for the Agency and make a miniature ship in a bottle).
Finally, as a young man (played by Eddie Redmayne), Jr. indicts his father precisely: “I never felt safe,” he says. “I was always afraid because everything was a secret.” While The Good Shepherd does concede that secret agencies need to keep secrets, it plainly rejects the slippery, paranoid morality that follows from such a premise. Deliberate and thorough as the personality at its center, the movie is alternately sloggy and fascinating. On its surface a regular narrative of spy tricks and deceptions, it eventually provides more information than Edward has, and so asks you to judge him more than sympathize with him. It’s a risky narrative strategy, and if it’s not always riveting, it is apt: defined by his secrets, Edward recedes from his own story.