Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Good Shepherd: CIA Secrets or Hollywood Sizzle?

Screenwriter Meets Spy-catcher

The American traitor John Walker Jr. once said the best way to hide a lie is by wrapping it in layers of truth. It's a trick that not only serves spies, but also clever Hollywood scriptwriters.  Such is the case with The Good Shepherd, a cloak-and-dagger thriller that purports to tell the story of the Central Intelligence Agency's early days as seen through the eyes and career of Edward Wilson, the movie's main character. Played by Matt Damon, Wilson is patterned after the legendary spy-catcher, James Jesus Angleton.

Movie Poster: The Good Shepherd
Movie Poster: The Good Shepherd

But how much of the movie is true and how much is Hollywood sizzle?

Few CIA spooks have received as much attention as Angleton. None has ever been as controversial. His critics claim his paranoid-fueled hunt for a Soviet KGB mole burrowed inside the CIA almost destroyed the agency when Angleton ran its counter-intelligence operations from 1948 until he was forced to resign in 1975. His admirers insist Angleton's unflinching eye kept the CIA from being penetrated by skilled KGB agents during the height of the Cold War.

CIA Logo
CIA Logo

A tall, stooped chain-smoker, who usually dressed in black and whose hobbies were writing poetry and growing orchids, Angleton was known by the codename "Mother" and has been the inspiration behind characters in numerous spy novels. His controversial career has been recounted in a half dozen nonfiction books too, so it is not surprising that veteran scriptwriter, Eric Roth, turned to Angleton's life story when penning The Good Shepherd.

James Jesus Angleton

Since winning an Oscar for writing Forrest Gump, Roth has become Hollywood's expert at spinning news-making events into blockbusters. His more recent endeavors include The Insider and Munich, which showcased his talent at blending facts with fiction. Contacted at his Los Angeles home, Roth agreed to talk about The Good Shepherd for this Crime Library article. He said his interest in espionage dated back to his childhood when he used to pluck "decoder rings out of boxes of cereal" in the 1950s. While in college, he was approached by a CIA recruiter. It was during the Vietnam era and Roth, who considered himself a political liberal, rejected the invitation but was surprised by how intrigued he had been by the offer. Deep down many men still harbor a small boy's fantasy about becoming a secret agent, he decided.


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