The CIA, Skull and Bones, and Rewriting History: The Good Shepherd Purportedly Uncovers the "Untold Story of the Birth of the CIA." It Does Show the Incontestable Skull and Bones-CIA Connection, but Otherwise Largely Fails

By Mass, Warren | The New American, February 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

The CIA, Skull and Bones, and Rewriting History: The Good Shepherd Purportedly Uncovers the "Untold Story of the Birth of the CIA." It Does Show the Incontestable Skull and Bones-CIA Connection, but Otherwise Largely Fails


Mass, Warren, The New American


The Good Shepherd is a fictionalized version of history which is accurate in almost every incident. But because the filmmakers are liberated from trying to be faithful to the tiny details, they've come a lot closer in many ways to capturing some essential truths about this extraordinary period of intelligence, counterintelligence, betrayal and espionage during the Cold War....

There's no way to understand the present without understanding how we got there. And The Good Shepherd tells us.

--Richard C.A. Holbrooke Ambassador to the UN, 1999-2001

The Good Shepherd is described on its official website as "the untold story of the birth of the CIA." To the extent that most Americans do not know about the strong connection between Yale's secretive Skull and Bones Society and our nation's premier intelligence agency, the movie delivers as promised in a credible way. However, not surprisingly, in "the untold story," as captured through the lens of director Robert De Niro, the CIA was founded as an anti-communist organization that went on to fight the good fight, though not always successfully or adeptly, against Soviet spies and designs during the Cold War. That image of the CIA fits perfectly with conventional wisdom, but it does not fit so well with the real "untold story."

The reviewers almost universally panned the film--but not for what the movie failed to uncover. They, like this reviewer, found the movie tedious. De Niro, who also starred in the film, seemed more intent on teaching the American public a history lesson than in providing entertainment, making the movie's 156-minute running time seem longer than it actually was. De Niro included a few scenes of sexual activity in his film apparently to relieve its tediousness, but failed to accomplish that goal while diminishing the film's appeal for more morally discriminating viewers.

Through De Niro's Lens

The Good Shepherd is the product of De Niro's decade-long interest in the CIA. A friend who knew of that interest introduced De Niro to Milt Bearden, a retired 39-year CIA veteran who ran the agency's operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bearden became the film's lead technical adviser.

The focal point of the movie is the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when a group of Cuban expatriates trained by the United States attempted to liberate their homeland from Castro's oppressive dictatorship. From that vantage point, most of the events of the movie are depicted in a never-ending series of flashbacks through the eyes of top-ranking CIA agent Edward Wilson (portrayed by Matt Damon). Those flashbacks extend as far back as 1939, when Wilson was tapped as a Skull and Bones member at Yale University. After graduation, Wilson is recruited to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II-era precursor to the CIA. Wilson is also asked to take part in the founding of the CIA.

Though The Good Shepherd depicts the CIA as genuinely trying to safeguard U.S. security, it does not shy away from portraying aspects of the agency's dark side. In one riveting scene, agents cover an interrogatee's head with a garment that is repeatedly soaked with water, nearly drowning him, until the hapless man breaks free and jumps through the window to his death.

The film also depicts the CIA as an all-consuming organization that requires a degree of dedication and surrender of self on a par with membership in the Mafia or the Communist Party. Wilson's marital relationship with his wife Margaret "Clover" (Angelina Jolie) suffers greatly because his life as an agent leaves no time for being a husband and father. In two separate scenes, the Bonesmen and their wives attend formal banquets at Deer Island, the Skull and Bones private Thousand Islands retreat (which really exists), where the toast to the Order takes precedence to the invocation. Clover, whose father and brother are also Bonesmen, remarks with evident sarcasm each time the toast and invocation are given: "Agency first, God second.

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