Robert De Niro’s new movie (his second attempt as a director) is a long, dark and convoluted psychological thriller about the early days of the CIA and the men who founded it. This is a bit more serious than the usual spy thriller. Though most of the events in the movie are fictional, most of them are inspired by something that actually occurred, or at least which somebody claims actually occurred. (It’s a business where it is often difficult to separate history from disinformation.)
Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a character based very loosely on James Jesus Angleton, who was head of counterintelligence for the CIA from 1954 to 1974. Angleton was a controversial figure who is remembered most for his obsessive search for Soviet “moles” in the agency.
In a series of flashbacks we see Wilson as a student at Yale in the late 1930s who seems assured of an influential career due to his connections with the WASP elite. A patriotic young man, he is recruited by General Bill Sullivan (De Niro), founder of Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of the CIA.
Even as a boy Wilson was secretive and closed-off, but his experiences as an intelligence officer in Europe, working first against the Nazis, and later against the Soviet Union, exacerbate these tendencies. He learns to trust nobody and conceal everything. As the years pass the world of secrecy and betrayal that he inhabits gradually overwhelms his personal life.
Though this makes an absorbing story, it somewhat fails dramatically. The main problem is that Edward Wilson is such a secretive, repressed and generally unpleasant character that it is impossible for the audience to sympathize with him. We watch the collapse of his personal life with clinical detachment.
I have another problem with the film. There is a jarring scene between Wilson and an aging mob boss during which Wilson makes a racist remark that is totally out of character. This particular character in this particular situation would never have said such a thing (even if he secretly believed it.) The scene contributes nothing to the story and I can’t help wondering if it isn’t just an expression of De Niro’s own hatred of WASPs.
This in turn makes me wonder why the movie places such great emphasis on Wilson’s WASPishness. The real James Angleton wasn’t really the sort of WASP blue-blood portrayed in the movie. The hint of reverse ethnic prejudice is disturbing and distasteful, and for me it reduces the value of the film