December 21, 2006
‘The Good Shepherd’: I was a young man for the CIA
Eric Roth's impressive resume as a Hollywood screenwriter includes an Oscar (for adapting "Forrest Gump") and a string of reality-based screenplays about the difficulties important people face choosing between realpolitik and personal morality.
These include shared credits on 1999's "The Insider," about a tobacco-company whistleblower and the problems CBS "60 Minutes" had broadcasting his story; 2001's "Ali," a biopic about Muhammad Ali; and 2005's "Munich," Steven Spielberg's film about an Israeli hit squad charged with punishing the Arab terrorists who killed 11 athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Both "The Insider" and "Ali" were Michael Mann films.)
And the theme is continued in the new drama "The Good Shepherd," for which Roth has sole writing credit and on which he has worked for more than a decade. The Robert DeNiro-directed film follows Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) as he moves from college into the shadowy, treacherous world of American espionage during World War II and afterward, at the expense of good relations with his wife (Angelina Jolie).
It also tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency's formative years and is loosely based on the career of James Angleton, the late CIA counter-intelligence chief. Roth recalls one early influence was reading Norman Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost," a 1,000-plus-page novel about the CIA published in 1992.
"I was interested in the notion of an organization devoted to secrecy and how that affects people's lives, particularly their personal lives," said Roth, via telephone. "And what the burden of carrying around those things is."
The film includes references to actual Cold War confrontations, such as the overthrow of Guatemala's leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, intrigue in the Belgian Congo, an effort to enlist the Mafia in overthrowing Cuba's Fidel Castro and the thwarted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
One intriguing reference in the movie is to a proposed trade between American intelligence agents and the Soviets in occupied post-World War II Berlin. The Russians propose trading Jewish scientists found in Nazi concentration camps for Nazi rocket scientists captured by U.S. troops. Roth said such trading was confirmed to him by the CIA sources he consulted in preparing his screenplay.
Roth, 61, credits his Jewishness with his screenwriting interests. "I think it comes down to my heritage and sense of values as to what is the sense of purpose on this earth," he said. "I think it's nice to have some kind of legacy and to do things that are worthwhile. There's a value to doing something good and to have people thinking about things. I think it comes from the Jewish tradition within me and what my parents handed down to me."
Born in Brooklyn, his father was a film publicist for United Artists and then, after moving to Los Angeles in Roth's senior year of high school, taught film at University of Southern California. His mother wrote for radio quiz shows in New York and, in California, was a reader and head of the story department at UA. (Roth also grew up with a brother and sister; he and his wife today have six children and four grandchildren.)
After high school, Roth headed back east to Columbia University to study English. But he returned to study film and folklore at UCLA, where he won the Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Award. That led to his first feature film -- in Israel.
"The movie was being financed by a group that took Christians to Holy Land tours, and they knew the director, a nice man named Jim Collier, who went on to make a film ["The Hiding Place"] about a Dutch family who hid Jews during World War II, Corrie ten Boom," Roth said.
"It had two or three titles -- one was 'Catch a Pebble,' I think. It was released here for like two seconds. The man who made it was a very religious Christian who made documentaries for Billy Graham, and this was a lay project, just a love story.
"It was his story," Roth explained. "A stewardess was escaping a bad relationship and working for an airline that goes to Israel. She was barely pregnant at the time and decides not to come back to the States. She decides to hide out and get her life together in Israel. She meets an Israeli who takes her to his kibbutz, and they fall in love."
Roth vividly remembers when the playwright Lanford Wilson, who already had the successful "Balm in Giliad" and was soon to write "The Hot L Baltimore," was visiting an actor friend during that film's shoot. "He came over and I remember him helping me write a scene I was having trouble with," Roth said. "That was a lovely moment."
From there on, Roth's career has only gotten better -- he wrote screenplays for such movies as "Suspect," "Memories of Me," "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Nickel Ride," besides those previously mentioned. He also shares a screenplay credit (with Brian Helgeland) for one of Hollywood's great recent stinkers, Kevin Costner's three-hour-long "The Postman," from 1997.
"I had written that as a satire for Tom Hanks many years before the movie got made -- well before 'Forrest Gump,'" Roth recalled. "That's how I met Tom, through 'The Postman.' It was not meant to be taken seriously.
"Later, Kevin Costner developed it, and he made a more earnest version," he continued. "And the guy who rewrote me went on to win an Oscar, Brian Helgeland ['L.A. Confidential']. So it goes to show that sometimes things just don't work."
"The Good Shepherd" opens Dec. 22.