Spy Game (2001)

Spy Game

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Tony Scott, director of blockbuster action films like Top Gun, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State, has crafted another intelligent popcorn flick, and this one boasts the strongest lead talents of any film he’s made so far. Robert Redford stars as Nathan Muir, a seasoned CIA professional readying for retirement; and Brad Pitt plays his prodigy, Tom Bishop.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, as Muir is being interrogated about his involvement with Bishop. It seems Bishop has been captured in the middle of undercover work, and is now being tortured in a Chinese on the eve of an important and volatile presidential visit to China. The CIA wants to find a politically convenient excuse to forget about Bishop and leave him to his painful fate.

But Muir is not that kind of mentor. He’s left a lot of men behind in the past, but it’s retirement day, and his conscience is prodding him about leaving on a sour note. Besides, his experiences with the young rookie have taught him a thing or two as well, such as the importance of loyalty. He’s not about to leave this man behind.

Spy Game is impressive in the way it takes us through some of the many different complex challenges that spies must face day-to-day in the real world. We watch Bishop learning to lie, and struggling when those lies get difficult to maintain as relationships grow and develop. We also watch Muir weighing his responsibility to hold the safety of the country over the importance of an individual for whom he cares very much. Screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner writes with persuasive authority, peppering the dialogue with quick wit and details that made for efficient character development.

The movie strays into Hollywood land, in that Bishop and Muir seem to be at the center of more action and significant historical events than any spy ever has. But the action they see is convincing, from Vietnam sniper missions to street fights in Beirut.

In these dusty, harsh environments, Redford and Pitt have the movie star glow, where no amount of blood, mud, or slime can cover their glamour. But their performances are solid. In fact, it’s Redford’s best performance in a very long time. He’s convincing as a spy with the intellect of Keyser Soze, he’s funny, and he makes Muir more morally ambiguous than any of his other recent roles.

Unfortunately, the movie seems to be celebrating his moral lapses. Muir, who gripes about the lack of ethics among CIA superiors, gives himself permission to break laws, lie to American authorities, and sneak around behind their backs to do what he thinks is right. Sure, it’s a bad situation, having one of your best men stuck behind enemy lines … but should Muir be endangering national security, risk a major embarrassment in the press, and subvert complicated political procedures to carry out an operation all his own?

Tony Scott’s stylish direction keeps the tension high, but I found the rapid-cut editing and hyperactive camerawork to be distractions from an interesting and complex plot. Worse, the film doubts the intelligence of its audiences, constantly reminding us “the clock is ticking” and that the hour of Bishop’s execution draws ever closer. The love story that surfaces in the second half of the film seems one of those only-in-the-movies developments. As the film progresses, the heroes wear the scars of their adventures, but an undercover beauty who has been imprisoned and subjected to harsh treatment emerges looking as pure as a Revlon commercial.

Most viewers were on the edge of their seats, and I too was caught up in the cliffhanger countdown. But afterwards I realized that I had been maneuvered into rooting for a dangerously reckless and presumptuous man. We’re left admiring Muir’s “cool” while the administrators of American government are painted as sloppy, half-witted buffoons. In a time when the need for respectful citizens and respectable government seems more crucial than ever, these are rather dissonant chords.

While it is not the film’s intent to question the ethics of its central characters, Spy Game raises questions about the boundaries that should be set for spies. Just how far can their deceit go in the name of national security? Is it ever appropriate to endanger the lives of innocent civilians in the name of eliminating a terrorist or a warlord?

Director – Tony Scott
Writer – Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, based on a story by Michael Frost Beckner
Director of photography – Dan Mindel
Editor – Christian Wagner
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams
Production designer – Norris Spencer
Producer – Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham

Universal Pictures. 115 minutes. Rated R.

STARRING: Robert Redford (Nathan Muir), Brad Pitt (Tom Bishop), Catherine McCormack (Elizabeth Hadley), Stephen Dillane (Charles Harker), Larry Bryggman (Troy Folger) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Gladys Jennip).

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One Response to “Spy Game (2001)”

  1. The Looking Closer Film Review Archive « Looking Closer at the Movies Says:

    [...] (2004) Spider (2002) Spider-Man (2002) Spider-Man 2 Spider-Man 3 Spin (2004) Spirited Away (2001) Spy Game (2001) Spy Kids (2001) The Squid and the Whale (2005) Stardust (2007) Star Wars – Special Editions [...]

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