In the aftermath of World War II, members of the OSS, the Office for Strategic Services, convinced the White House that the United States needed a formal espionage program. How the Central Intelligence Agency was formed is the subject of The Good Shepherd, the second feature to be directed by actor Robert De Niro. Starring Matt Damon, and with a cast that includes De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Joe Pesci, Billy Crudup, John Turturro, William Hurt, and Michael Gambon, the film covers some twenty-five years, from a time when ethical choices seemed clear cut to a decidedly more ambiguous post-Watergate climate.
De Niro says that the film is “in many ways a family drama.” Turturro feels that “it explores the gray areas of espionage and how a lot of people were victims of it.” Screenwriter Eric Roth jokingly refers to The Good Shepherd as “the WASP Godfather.”
Roth started work on the script twelve years ago, when he was looking for a project after finishing his adaptation of Forrest Gump. Reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, he became intrigued with the people who built the CIA. At one point Roth worked on adapting Mailer’s novel for Francis Ford Coppola, who had optioned it. But as Roth explains, “It was a wonderful book, but a more elaborate story than I could do. I just set off on my own and tried to write my own version of the people behind the CIA.”
According to the screenwriter, De Niro first became interested in the script some seven years ago. “Bob loved the story, he loved the people involved. The duplicity, the power of secrecy, all the thematic stuff that brought me to the subject as well.” Roth counters the perception that the actor is difficult to communicate with. “It’s more that he’s very private, very reserved, kind of shy. He’s more reticent than people are used to, but he’s quite articulate when he wants to tell you what he wants. What makes him a wonderful actor is how he tries to find the simplest way to show an honest reaction. I tend sometimes to be a little more elaborate, or even over the top, as a writer, so it was a good blend that way.”
“On the set, Bob listens to everyone,” Roth continues. “He’s very open, very democratic, not that he doesn’t make the final decisions. But he takes people who are knowledgeable in certain areas and he really does listen to them, which is a great trait.”
Asked why the project took so long to reach the screen, Roth points to the script’s large cast and complex plotting, but reveals that a big obstacle was finding an actor to play the role of Edward Wilson. “There was really no one who could play it until certain actors came of age,” he says. The writer is delighted with Damon’s work, but notes that he couldn’t have played the part a decade ago. “This is a very tortured character, someone who has to wrestle with his soul. Matt gives a tremendous performance. Not flamboyant–this is the kind of guy who recedes into himself. I think it’s one of the more difficult acting jobs I’ve seen.”
Roth was surprised at how little his original script changed over the years. “This had gone through a number of potential directors, and the structure changed with one particular director, but the story remained the same. The story telling changed slightly in that it’s not a linear narrative as it once was, but I think the impact is the same.”
What did change were intangibles, like how the sets should look. Roth isn’t sure that he does research in a “normal” way. “I read a lot about the CIA and the people involved, and I’ve met now with probably forty or so CIA agents, but this is not a documentary. I have a responsibility as a dramatist. I feel I understand the mores of the period, what the repressions were, the limits communicating. I don’t really think as much about what a desk looked like, or what an office looked like. In a way, that’s the easy part for me, because I can rely on great production designers like Jeannine Claudia Oppewall to get those things right.” Roth feels that former agents hired as technical advisors helped make The Good Shepherd “as accurate as any movie has ever been about the CIA.”
Roth has built a remarkable body of work since winning a screenwriting contest while studying folklore at UCLA. He has worked with like Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, and Robert Zemeckis, although he still can’t predict which of his scripts will actually get filmed. He is hopeful about Shantaram, a Johnny Depp project based on a Gregory David Roberts novel about a heroin addict who escapes from an Australian jail to find a spiritual reawakening in India. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, should start filming soon under director David Fincher. “On the surface, it’s about a guy who ages backwards, but it’s really about how we deal with the passage of time. It takes place over sixty-seven years, and I’m anxious to see how it comes out.” Roth hopes Pitt will also star in his account of the original feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the late nineteenth century. In the meantime, the screenwriter is preparing adaptations of Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, a nonfiction story about a dogged New York detective, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about 9/11, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Committing to working on an idea that may or may not get filmed is one of the peculiarities of the film industry. “You can’t think everything’s going to take a decade or you’ll be dead,” Roth says. “You just have to have patience to move on to the next one and hope the ones before will find their level.” One thing that drives the screenwriter is his love of movies, everything from the horror films he remembers seeing as a child to recent titles like The Queen.
In scripts like The Insider, Roth has shown that an even-handed approach can be an effective and persuasive way to deal with charged subjects. He used that same strategy in The Good Shepherd. “I don’t go under the assumption that everybody’s kind of evil,” he says. “I asked our technical advisor what if there had never been a CIA, and he had a great answer. He said the same things would have happened, but much slower. In other words, fundamentalism would have come about in any case.”
A film that examines, as this one does, the ties between the agency and an East Coast “old money” establishment, is bound to raise hackles. As De Niro puts it, the blue bloods who founded and ran the CIA “had more of an investment in their heritage and history. They had more to lose if they didn’t win.” More troubling is the film’s explanation of how morally questionable methods for gathering information spread throughout the agency.
But Roth is careful to point out that the film doesn’t attack the CIA. “I don’t think there is any question that the CIA has helped keep America safe in many areas. The Good Shepherd is asking different questions. What is the price of secrecy? What are the pressures? Where do people ethically have to start drawing lines? People in government periodically try to demand oversight of the CIA. But that’s an oxymoron. If you have a secret organization, it’s going to be doing secret things. They may be for the good, but it may be a question of not finding out until later what the real consequences are.”