The Bad Good Shepherd (what the movie got right and wrong)

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Why did the CIA’s 1961 Bay of Pigs operation Cuba fail? In The Good Shepherd, the recent Robert DeNiro film starring Matt Damon, we are led to think that the plan collapsed because the landing site of the invasion was leaked.

But in actuality, the problems with the invasion were far more profound. What really happened and in what other ways does Hollywood twist history? The CIA, surprisingly unshy these days about airing its dirty laundry, has now posted a transcript on the agency website of its in-house discussions of the film.

It turns out that, contrary to what we see on the silver screen, no CIA figure of that era belonged to Skull and Bones, Yale’s secret society. There are other far more serious distortions of the past, says one in-house CIA historian. Among other things, “[b]y depicting service in the agency as a life of lies, secrets, and the dirty business of operations and counterintelligence, it suggests that people who work in CIA turn into monsters.”

According to the CIA’s chief historian, the movie “gets all the little details right: the eyeglasses, the desk sets, the street signs, the newspaper boxes—much like those quality historical dramas that the British are so good at producing. But as a rendering of history writ large, the film seems to me more like the “propagandamentaries” of Costa Gavras, such as Z and State of Siege, which use familiar, but not necessarily true-to-life, episodes and personalities to make political points.”

Still, as one CIA historian sums it up, for intelligence professionals, Good Shepherd is “probably worth seeing, at least to be able to discuss it intelligently in social and professional settings” with other spies.

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