Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Important Movie

Watched "The Good Shepherd" last night and was impressed by the political timeliness of a Hollywood movie that seriously helps explain the current behavior of the CIA by delving deeply into its origins during and following World War II. (It stars Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie; directed by Robert DeNiro; released December 22, 2006. Okay, okay, I'm running a full year behind on my movie-viewing, but gimme a break!)

Up front, "The Good Shepherd" was a flop, earning only $60 million in domestic receipts (against an estimated budget of $85 million), though foreign and DVD sales have put it into the black. We can well understand why no one went to see it:
1. It requires a little basic understanding of 20th-century American history, particularly the disastrous attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

2. It reflects on American failure, and American audiences have shown little appetite for anything less than rah-rah self-congratulation

What's remarkable is the story. It sees the American spy bidness as a function of social class, depicting the recruitment of spies and special agents from the ranks of the wealthy elite, particularly from Yale University and most particularly from the membership of Yale's Order of Skull & Bones. The attitudes, the complacent expectation of privilege, the cold WASP aristocracy of old money is depicted as writing the charter for America's spy agency. Considering the CIA today (does the destruction of evidence despite a judge's order ring a bell?), one can clearly see those same blood-lines (psychological if not actual) surviving into our present. "The Good Shepherd" suggests that in fact some people are above the law.

In other words, "The Good Shepherd" is about American arrogance as an extension of class privilege. One of the Yalie boys turned CIA officials in the movie knowingly says toward the end, "Someone asked me why when we talk about CIA, we don't say 'the CIA,' and I told him, 'You don't say the when talking about God."

Sent a chill down my spine!

Matt Damon's style of understated acting is pretty perfect for playing a buttoned-up, cold as ice WASP who can order the torture of a Russian defector or shoot an East German woman he's just sexed up without a flicker of human doubt or pain. He's as close to a robot as you can get and still have blood in the veins. So he's not exactly admirable. He's playing definitely against the type people do pay their money to see at the pitcher shows, the Jason Bourne version of the American spy.

In one very telling scene, Damon as CIA agent Ed Wilson is trying to recruit Mafioso capo Joseph Palmi (played by Joe Pesci, who's in the movie for a grand total of maybe two indelible minutes) for some dirty business in Cuba:
Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something. We Italians, we got our families, and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland. Jews, their tradition. Even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

That's pure privilege talking, calm and self-assured. That's the attitude that planned the Bay of Pigs invasion, that invented tortures judged very effective down to our own day, that thought that lesser ethnicities will naturally bend, and quickly, to the American will. That is the attitude of Skull and Bones, the social club that birthed George W. Bush.

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