a commentary by Tony McRae

We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa
We’re little black sheep who have gone astray 
Baa, baa, baa  

These are lines from the Whippenpoof Song, an old favorite of Yale University’s Skull and Bones, a secret society that has included some of the most powerful men in our nation’s history.  (Both George W. Bush and John Kerry were members.)  The song plays a significant part in Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd”—and my guess is it inspired the movie’s title.   

The “shepherd” is Edward Wilson, a highly placed CIA operative, played by a tightly wound, unsmiling, unflinching, and totally believable Matt Damon.   

The story begins and ends in the days following the  Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1963.These “60s” scenes are interspersed with flashbacks from Wilson’s past; from his childhood and his father’s suicide; to his Yale school years and his induction into Skull and Bones; to his marriage to a powerful senator’s daughter; and finally his undercover work during World War II for the OSS—which would become the CIA.   

Wilson  is in nearly every scene.  He is a decent man, competent in his job, above all a patriot.  When he is being recruited for the CIA by General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), he is given advice he will have trouble heeding:  “Trust no one.”  Eventually, after the deaths of those he allowed himself to get close to, he comes to understand that to protect his country he must always be on guard, always in control of his emotions.  And so he becomes “the least free of men.”   

This is a serious movie, tautly directed and wonderfully interpreted by a stellar.  Angelina Jolie has never been better; she ages seamlessly, first as a college student and then as wife and mother.  Then there’s William Hurt (who’s on a roll these days), Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, Joe Pesci—and De Niro himself.   

“We’re little lambs who have lost our way; we’re little black sheep who have gone astray.”  This story is a cautionary tale.  Our country will always needs good shepherds, people like Edward Wilson.  The question De Niro raises, at least for me, is  “Are men like Edward Wilson the ones to bring us back to our true course?”  This the viewer must decide.   

The last lines of the Whippenpoof song are telling:
Gentlemen songsters off on a spree
Doomed from here to eternity
Lord have mercy on such as we
Baa, baa, baa

The movie is long, 160 minutes, but I was never restless.  On the contrary, the ending came as a surprise. This is on my “best of 2006” list.

Rated R for some violence, sexuality and language.