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Surveillance and Spying in Film: II–The Good Shepherd

Crime Films: A Monthly Column

My last column used director Tony Scott’s Deja Vu to explore the nature of surveillance crime films. In this column, I use director Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd to establish some distinctions between surveillance and spy films.

Like the surveillance crime film, the spy film has a venerable history, including the early Alfred Hitchcock The 39 Steps (1935) and his later Notorious (1946). It also includes Marathon Man (1976); a number of films based on novels by John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965; The Little Drummer Girl, 1984; The Constant Gardener, 2005); and the latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale (2006).

Spy films, like surveillance films, are full of secrets. Typically, they are espionage movies, featuring characters from diverse countries who risk their lives to gather information on one another. This is the sort of situation we find in Notorious, where a government agent assigned to Rio de Janeiro asks Ingrid Bergman’s character to spy on her late father’s Nazi friends, and which we encounter again in Casino Royale. where British M16 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) spins through Africa, the Bahamas, and Montenegro spying on terrorists and the gamblers who finance international terrorism, only to fall in love with a double agent.

The Good Shepherd is the quintessential espionage film. Its main character, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is roughly modeled on James Jesus Angleton, the founder of counterintelligence operations for the CIA. At Yale, Wilson is inducted into his first secret organization, the Skull and Bones Society, an emblem of the WASP elitism and self-righteousness that later also characterizes his intelligence agencies. Wilson first serves as an agent of the Office of Strategic Services in London during World War II; as he rises in the CIA, he travels elsewhere in Europe and in Africa.

Stolid, silent, and emotionally repressed from the start, Wilson dedicates himself to the service of his country, only to lose everything: his favorite teacher from college, his first love, his wife’s tolerance, his son’s trust. Wilson learns that when he was a child, his father committed suicide because he was discovered in some kind of duplicity. Wilson himself, upright and rule-bound, ostensibly leads a different kind of life but ends up infinitely more duplicitous than his father.

Surveillance plays an important role in The Good Shepherd, about a third of which is devoted to deciphering messages that may be buried in a surreptitiously-made audio tape and photograph of a couple in bed, whispering. (Here The Good Shepherd strongly echoes Antonioni’s Blowup, another film about the secrets buried in an image.) If Wilson’s intelligence agency can figure out who is in the bed, where they are, and what they are saying, it may be able to discover who leaked information about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to the Russians. But in The Good Shepherd, the key concern is not surveillance itself but rather the application of its findings to the particular political situation at hand.

The two types of crime film also differ in their political messages. The best surveillance films, as I argued in my last column, usually condemn surveillance for its over-reaching big-brotherism and invasions of privacy. (Deja Vu falls flat as a film because it forgets to take a stand on the morality of surveillance, instead becoming distracted by tired cop-film conventions.) Spy films are less consistent in their moral indignation–inevitably so, since they take their cues from the political context in which they are made, reflecting post-World War II Nazi-hunting in Notorious and the end of the Cold War in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Following this pattern, The Good Shepherd, although it is mainly concerned with the growth of US intelligence agencies in the mid-20th century, also reflects the current uneasiness about intelligence operations in 21st-century Iraq. It condemns the use of torture as a means of gathering information. Its scene of water torture indirectly condemns waterboarding, one of the most controversial methods by which the US has tried to wring information out of Iraqis. In a scene where an innocent man commits suicide, it also condemns US prejudgements of Iraqi guilt.

Most tellingly, The Good Shepherd uses Edward Wilson’s character to criticize the US intelligence establishment. The establishment it depicts is elitist and closed, dedicated but corrupted by its own determination, hardened like Wilson to the implications of what it does. It is an elaborate spy system designed to act as a good shepherd to its country but, the film suggests, it may ultimately accomplish nothing more than the collection of meaningless information and the destruction of, not only its enemies, but also its own agents.


Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Check out past columns on DeJa Vu, Sex Crime Movies, Inside Man and Miami Vice and her intro.

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