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Review: The Good Shepherd

Eyewear recently watched The Good Shepherd (2006) - the Robert DeNiro-directed film tracing the origins of (the) CIA, from the late Thirties at Yale (with its secret cloak-and-dagger collegiate society) to the Bay of Pigs Fiasco (the film conveniently side-steps the contemporary era, when a former Director of the agency became President of the USA, and his son, also became President). Matt Damon stars, as an American Smiley figure (Wilson) sad, stooped, seemingly suburban, matching wits with his equal number in Moscow, his personal life empty as his stare on the bus to work.

The film ends on a note of resounding sorrow and defeat - even despair - as the entirety of a man's life (his soul) is rendered to ash - and the pseudo-Christian message shadowing the film reveals itself (Mark 8:36) - "for what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?" - a good question the film-makers think could be applied to American foreign policy, as well, restated as: for what shall it profit a nation if it gain control of the world, and suffer the loss of its soul.

Of course, this was the theme of Citizen Kane, America's greatest classic film, as well the theme of The Godfather, arguably its finest post-WWII movie. It is also the theme of The Conversation (also about government criminality and surveillance, and faith - Caul is a Catholic - this time during the Watergate era). The director of The Good Shepherd famously starred in both these last films, and indeed the film is co-produced by Francis Ford Coppolla (who, tellingly, refused to direct it himself, as it was too bleak - so you can sense how bleak this is).

The film is curiously dull, needlessly confusing, and lacking in incident (though there are several spectacular murders of women, and several deaths by falling, no doubt symbolic). It is also filmed in a gloomy, yellowish sepia-tinted style familiar to fans of The Godfather trilogy, and stars those necessary accessories of any character based in the Sixties, the black half-rimmed Malcolm X specs (see Costner in JFK for their best use). Still, it is worthy, often intelligent, and, despite soft-pedalling in places, subtextually a strong indictment against America's spook community and its foreign policy since 1945 (basically, assume dominance of the world, and generate wealth via a military-industrial-complex that increases rather than reduces conflict).

Its main interest to me, though, is its view of poetry. Michael Gambon plays a homosexual British poet teaching in America in 1939 at Yale, who is modelled it seems - oddly - on W.H. Auden - although in this instance the poet-professor is a secret Nazi mole / British spymaster, who (unlike Auden) returns to London for the Blitz (where he is murdered with Wilson's quasi-blessing). Wilson - a poetry student at Yale - is in love with a beautiful deaf girl who is Catholic, chaste, and represents what is good in the world. He is recruited into ambiguous Nazi-gay practices by the Audenesque spy-prof, but rejects the caress of the older man's cane, and sees through the charade, when the poet plagiarises work ("Song") by Harvard poet Trumbull Stickney (written in 1902) - taken from his only book, Dramatic Verses.

Stickney was brilliant, and, had he lived, would have been a serious rival to Eliot. His French-language PhD was based on two dissertations taken at the Sorbonne - the second, Les Sentences dans la Poésie Grècque. Damon turns away, after this moment, from poetry, and gives up his life plan to marry his deaf college sweetheart, and move to a college town, to be a professor of literature, to instead fight fascism abroad and then return to help start the CIA. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire film is this use of the Harvard-Yale rivalry, and a somewhat obscure poet, as well as the life of a teacher of poetry, to create a kind of binary moral scale - the least moral route being a spy, the least immoral being someone who studies, and professes, poetry (which, pace Auden, "makes nothing happen" and is therefore above the fray of worldly things happening - including power and money).

Ironically, this would have seen Wilson working as a New Critic, likely under the sway of the Kenyon crowd, and taking orders from Mr. Eliot, not Mr. Kennedy. Would Wilson have exploded in the 60s, as his buttoned-down contemporary, Robert Lowell (another WASP establishment figure) did, and let in expression of personally-confessed material into the modernity of the work? Would he have lost his wife, his soul, his mind, anyway, like Berryman? Killed himself?

The Good Shepherd, by extolling the virtues of academe and poetry, simplifies these worlds, these choices - for poetry is also filled with struggle, ambition, and more aesthetic agonies - and in the process renders suspect its mirror-opposite vision of the role of intelligence gathering in a powerful modern democracy as uniformly negative.
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