This leads Wilson on a voyage of uneasy discovery that takes him through the past 50 years of his life, from Yale's Skull and Bones to Berlin to the halls of the CIA. It's a journey that not only charts his career, but also the genesis and growing pains of a whole new kind of war machine built primarily on information and disinformation.
In an early scene, Wilson witnesses his father's suicide, but not before the elder Wilson tells him to always seek the truth and always remain loyal. The former is probably why he wanted to become a spy; the latter is why he proves so good at it. The three decades between Yale and Cuba, though speckled with human foibles, shows Wilson to be, quite literally, the prototypical intelligence operative.
This is Robert De Niro's first attempt at directing since 1993's A Bronx Tale. His greatest triumph is the dull paranoia he is able to instill in the audience. We never get close to Damon's character because we don't trust him. We don't trust him because we've not been let far enough in. We've seen what he's wanted us to see, though that's not, we suspect, the real him. Like his chivalric battle with his KGB counterparts, he comes off as dutiful and capable, glitteringly intelligent. We see his works, but we don't know him.
Realizing this parallel, and only seeing his human failings crop up long enough to be quashed by his cold calculation, we're left to wonder if we, as an audience, haven't just spent three hours in a long con, being fed counter-intelligence and duly soaking it up.
It's a question no one -- not Damon, not De Niro, not screenwriter Eric Roth -- wants to answer. Very near the end (immediately before De Niro's miraculously soundless denouement nods at his obvious mentor, Francis Ford Coppola), there's some question whether Wilson has done something unspeakably awful. We know the history, we know the situation Wilson has been put in. We see the act -- a gorgeous Congolese woman being thrown out of a plane -- and we see the act's aftermath. We don't, though, see Wilson's level of involvement. We see him confronted, we see him say he had nothing to do with it, we see those around him accept his explanation.
Then we see his eyes.
There's no emotion, just calculation, which makes you think he's guilty. Then you immediately think he might just be figuring out his adversaries' angle, and if it means he's in danger. That makes you think he's innocent. You look back at his eyes, which De Niro has slyly paused on, and realize there's no way to tell which is the truth. This man whose childhood trauma seared the importance of truth and loyalty into him has, in 30 years of protecting a country he clearly loves, become a consummate liar with allegiances that are, at best, unclear.
It's a subtle and harrowing moment, exactly the kind that makes you feel good for wading through a three-hour film about cold war bureaucracy. Like you've been rewarded, finally, with something radiant. (Rated R)