If you’ve watched The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro’s second film as director, and found it over-long and too short on action, then join the club. Nearly every review I’ve read says that 2 hours 40 minutes is too long for a film about the founding of the CIA, especially one that includes few fights or assassinations—even though it stars Matt Damon, the guy who breathed new life into Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne by turning him into a kickass killer in the movies.
Except, of course, that I’m not part of that club. I loved The Good Shepherd. I didn’t miss the fist-fights at all (you can keep your Bourne Supremacy), and if I have a criticism, it was that it was too short. A film this vast in its scope should be a six-hour mini-series.
Okay, I guess I am not your average viewer. I’m fascinated by the cerebral aspects of intelligence. I think I’ve read every serious book ever written about the CIA. (The best? The Company by Robert Littell, a fictionalized history.) I can rewatch the old Smiley TV mini-series (in which Alec Guiness plays John Le Carre’s fictional spy-master) again and again. I can tell you who the best American spy novelist is (Charles McCarry, but Littell comes close). And I have traced all the fictional characters in The Good Shepherd to their real-life equivalents.
For instance, the movie’s hero (played by Matt Damon) is clearly modelled on James Jesus Angleton, the counter-spy chief who was with the agency from the very beginning. The Russian defector is derived from Yuri Nosenko. And so on.
What is it about intelligence that so fascinates me? Well, it is not the glamour. James Bond may be fun, but he’s about as realistic as Jessica Rabbit. Nor is it the violence. Ever since 24 stormed American TV, the tendency is to throw out all the logic from the plot and to add fight after fight. The Bourne films followed this formula and now, even James Bond has gone the 24 way, in the ultra-violent Casino Royale. (Can it be an accident that the heroes always have the same initials? James Bond, Jason Bourne and 24’s Jack Bauer?)
The bits I like are those that most film-makers leave out. I’m fascinated by the patient, chess-game stuff that true spy stories are based on. (Best example: The early John Le Carre and some of the mid-period stuff till he began believing that he was writing literature and became a tedious bore.) And I’m fascinated by motivation.
Spies live in a world of lies and deception (“a wilderness of mirrors”, the real Angleton called it), deal in secrets (“conspiracy is the sword I have lived by and I will die by it”: George Smiley in Le Carre’s Smiley’s People) and usually end up destroying their lives and those of the people they love.
But here’s the funny bit: They do all this for a salary that is even lower than the civil service grade. Many die in poverty. Most fade into bargain-basement anonymity. If they do get awards, they can’t even tell us about them.
So, what kind of man becomes a spy? What keeps him going? And what does it do to him as a human being?
In the US and in Britain, most 20th-century spies came from the same sorts of backgrounds. In the US, they were Yale-Harvard Wasps (Jews, Italians and blacks were rarely encouraged to join), who regarded their calling as an expression of patriotism. (Asked by an Italian-American mobster what Wasps believe in, The Good Shepherd’s Damon answers: “The United States of America; the rest of you are just visiting.”)
In the UK, they were minor public school-Oxbridge types who were spotted at university and encouraged to see spying as a branch of academics—a tradition that predated the Second World War.
Most of the great spy fiction of our times focuses on people from those backgrounds. In Smiley’s world, nearly everyone is Oxbridge and public school. (His wife is the daughter of an Earl.) In the classic CIA books, the East Coast-Ivy League origins of the central characters are celebrated. And even the later, more popular stuff still frowns on ethnicity: How many US spy novels have you read where the hero is black, Jewish or Italian-American? (Think of the names: Jason Bourne, not Jacob Bernstein. And it’s always Jason, James or Jack, not Joshua or Jonah.)
Of course, the real CIA is not like that any longer. And SIS, the organization James Bond is supposed to work for, has recruited at redbrick universities and actively looks for ethnic types. (The hit British TV show Spooks, about MI5, has had black and Asian heroes—which is true to life these days.) Some would argue that this is one reason why western spy services are in such a mess. Take away the noble patriotic motivation and you are left with poorly-paid bureaucracies staffed by mediocre people who wouldn’t get good jobs elsewhere. (Think of our own IB & R&AW.)
My fear is that as real spies become more boring and less cerebral, spy fiction will become more escapist and unrealistic (like 24 or Casino Royale). The intelligent spy novel will die just as the real world of the intelligent spy has.
That’s why I loved The Good Shepherd. Even if you have no interest in the CIA, see it for the performances (Damon, De Niro, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, etc.). And pray that somebody turns The Company into a mini-series. Sadly, spy fiction as a genre is on its way out. And action fiction has taken over. Films such as The Good Shepherd represent the dying throes of a genre in terminal decline.
Who’s your favourite spy? Write to Vir Sanghvi at firstname.lastname@example.org