You have ploughed wickedness,
you have reaped injustice,
you have eaten the fruit of lies.
Because you have trusted in your power
and in the multitude of your warriors…
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth effectively draw us into this spy drama despite its length of almost three hours. They owe more to John Le Carre than to James Bond as they chronicle the early years of the O.S.S., the WW 2 intelligence agency that grew into the CIA after the War. Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson, reputedly based on two real life operatives, is about as far from his Jason Bourne as possible. Motivated by patriotism, Edward Wilson keeps both his emotions and information about his work walled off from everyone, including his family. The character that he most reminds me of is the corporate executive Ralph Hopkins, played by Frederick March in the 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Both are so wedded to their work and corporate success that they fail dismally in their family relationships.
The plot is anchored in a series of events during the first week of April 1961, when the Bay of Pigs invasion has turned into a disaster. Wilson is assigned the task of discovering who leaked to the Cubans information on the background of the planning of the invasion. All he has to go on is a grainy photo and a barely understandable audiotape made of a man engaged in sex with a woman in a hotel room. They cannot see the man’s face, but they can hear the woman’s voice and background noise (such as the tolling of church bells and the sound of airplanes landing), and they see enough of the ceiling fan to be able to discover its make. As Wilson and CIA technicians put together the puzzle piece by piece we are taken back to the beginnings of his career, from his Yale days when he was inducted into the elite secret society Skull and Bones, through his romances, WW2 days with the O.S.S., and the stressful days of the Cold War when he often confronts his KGB counterpart Stas Siyanko (Oleg Stefan), whose code name is Ulysses.
In interviews director De Niro, who himself plays the legendary founder of the CIA Bill Sullivan, has stated that his intention was not to make an anti-CIA film, but to tell a good story. He has certainly done that, the long film being as much of a character study as that of a spy thriller, but the story is a grim chronicle of the decline of a human being to the status of a spying machine. From his induction into the O.S.S. Wilson has been taught “to trust no one,” with its inevitable results graphically shown. Unlike the earlier James Bond films, this one shows the results of engaging in assassinations; plots to over throw unfriendly governments, and the torture of prisoners. It is not a pretty picture, though to the film’s credit, there is no preacherly pointing of the finger at the current CIA or administration, viewers being left to form their own opinions. But the picture of what a lifetime of deception and mistrust does to the human psyche, even when this is in defense of one’s country, is not a pretty one.
Caution: The last question contains spoilers.
1) Describe Edward Wilson’s character at the beginning of the story. How is he a perfect recruit for a spy agency? For example, when, as a boy, he finds his father dead, what does he do? If word that his father was a suicide had gotten out, what would this have done to his status in society?
2) From what class are Wilson and the other O.S.S. and CIA agents? How does their sense of entitlement, of owning the country, come out in Wilson’s conversation with the Mafia don?
3) What does Wilson sacrifice when he marries Clover/Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), daughter of a US senator—and what does he gain?
4) What is Wilson’s relationship with his university mentor Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon)? What do you think of the latter’s advice to him about his involvement in spying—”Get out while you still have a soul”? How is Wilson’s involement in Fredericks’ murder a milestone in the downward arc of his character/soul?
5) How would you characterize Wilson’s relationship with his family when he returns after a six year absence following WW 2? What seems to motivate his son Edward Wilson Jr. (Eddie Redmayne)?
6) What did you feel during the tortuous interrogation of Valentin Mironov #2 (Mark Ivanir)? From a moral standpoint does the use of such tactics make the CIA any different from the KGB? Do you believe that there should be limits to what American agents do in defending our country? How does this relate to what is being debated today?
7) How does Wilson’s solving the mystery of the leak redound upon himself? Do you see a sense of divine justice in this, especially in Wilson’s acceptance of what must be done as a result? How would you relate this to other father-son stories?