Where's Jason Bourne when we need him?
Screenwriter Eric Roth ("Munich" and "Forrest Gump") crafts a cryptic main character closer to surveillance expert Harry Caul in Coppola's paranoia classic "The Conversation" than any spy who came in from the cold. The drama opens with a black-and-white sex film taken surreptitiously by someone, somewhere. Like Caul, Wilson (Damon) plays the audio over and over again to glean information, and he peers through his wire-rim glasses at the grainy footage for visual clues. He hears the words "secret" and "cochinas" (pigs in Spanish). The recording is central to the question driving the narrative: Who is the mole who forewarned Fidel Castro about the U.S.-planned invasion and attempt to overthrow his government, causing the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961?
Most of this very slow-paced movie gives Wilson's back story through a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. Instead of adding layers of color and complexity to the protagonist, the past events provide a just-the-facts laundry list of Wilson's formative experiences and convictions. These range from his disgraced father's (Timothy Hutton) suicide to his Skull and Bones initiation at Yale, wedding to a pregnant bride (Angelina Jolie) and recruitment into government service by a fedora-wearing FBI agent (Alec Baldwin).
Edward Wilson is a good shepherd who combines his love for America with the detail-oriented talents that make him first a good detective and then a deliberate, dispassionate company man. He doesn't kill mano a mano, but he gives the orders that result in torture and death. In short, he's a dull character.
Archival newsreel footage unspools an equally boring history lesson of World War II and the Cold War years. See Edward Wilson. See Edward Wilson's involvement in these events and what will become standard CIA operating procedures.
When a former Yale professor (Michael Gambon) urges him to "get out while you still have a soul," you really won't care.
The payoff comes quietly at the end, as the personal and the political collide with chilling consequences.