Drugging the flock
A film about the birth of the CIA written by an Oscar-winning screenwriter and featuring an ensemble of great actors would seem to be a can’t-miss setup. But, while Robert De Niro’s second directorial effort (after 1993’s A Bronx Tale) features its positives, the sum of its great parts don’t add up to much.
De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth begin the story following CIA agent Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that he had a hand in orchestrating. The character of Wilson is supposed to be real-life U.S. counterintelligence legend James Jesus Angleton, and the film proceeds to jump from his work with the agency during the ‘60s (helping orchestrate the Bay of Pigs invasion, for one) and the “real-life” back story of Wilson’s life in espionage leading up to his role in forming the CIA.
We get to see all of the spies, traitors and secrets of the early part of the century, as Wilson makes his way into the inner sanctum of the country’s most exclusive clubs—from Yale’s Skull and Bones to the Office of Strategic Services during and after WWII and then the development of the CIA and the Cold War.
The problem is that Damon’s character (like many of the characters in the film) doesn’t have much character. He plays the part to perfection, but he’s playing one of the real spies. Unlike the Tom Cruises and 007s of the movie world, these spies don’t like calling attention to themselves with high-speed chases and exploding helicopters. These dudes were serious people doing serious work without anyone being the wiser. The Cold War days of espionage were about developing relationships. When Damon’s Wilson is in the same room as his Soviet counterpart “Ulysses” (Oleg Stefan), no one gets a blow dart in the neck—better to have a contact to bring into the disinformation fold. It’s not so sexy, but it’s probably more accurate. It’s also very dry to watch on screen.
Not that it’s a boring film. It’s fascinating (and sometimes confusing) to watch the cat-and-mouse stories unfold as the film jumps back and forth between time periods, and the acting is top notch (guys like Alec Baldwin and William Hurt can just stand there and be enjoyable to watch). In the end, it’s just a very dry and long (over 2 1/2 hours) series of stories about Wilson and his history of counterintelligence (with a little soul-searching family drama via a loveless marriage and a neglected son) that are only loosely threaded together and not very in-depth.