Spy Game
review by Gianni Truzzi, 23 November 2001

CIA agent extraordinaire Nathan Muir's office is all packed up on his last day before retirement, except for the flag displayed behind Plexiglas. Its tattered and burnt condition suggests a story behind it, one full of derring-do that Muir is proud of, but we never learn what it is. He's too busy fighting his own superiors to save Tom Bishop , his errant protégé interrogated in a Shanghai prison and slated to be executed the next day. In the course of Muir's twenty-four hours of mind games, distressed by the agency's greater concern for Chinese trade talks than for the welfare of one of their own, he asks a colleague, "Didn't all this used to be about something?"

We might ask the same thing about this action-soggy, emotionless film.

Much of the story takes place in flashback, as Muir (Robert Redford), in conference at Langley, recounts his 1975 recruitment of Bishop (Brad Pitt) in Vietnam, his training in Berlin and their role as assassins in 1980's Beirut. "If you leave the reservation," Muir warns him after an attempt to bring an East German defector across goes sour, "I won't come after you." The spy biz is a harsh one, he explains, instructing Bishop to never put himself at risk for someone else, never use your own resources and put money away to end up someplace warm – rules that Muir himself will break by the movie's end.

The pleasure lies in watching the cipherous Muir best his desk-bound colleagues at every turn, withholding information as he chooses, and staying at least one step ahead while he tries to grasp what operation Bishop's meddling upset. This is the kind of role that the poker-faced Redford is best at, reminiscent of his young con man in The Sting. It's all heavy screenwriter's contrivance, of course, but the kind that we can give ourselves over to as a guilty pleasure.

Ever since Redford directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It the notion of two generations of sex symbols in the same film has beckoned, and the pairing makes for a surprisingly textured contrast; Redford is steady ego to Pitt's impetuous id. But the flashback scenes where they're found together are hard going. Director Tony Scott tints these sequences as if to color-code them, and, true to form, he is incapable of trusting the simple drama of two people talking.

One suspects, given his politics, that Redford signed on to make a very different movie.  There are glimmers of something more, suggesting that Michael Frost Beckner's (creator of the television series The Agency) original spec script took a colder view of the CIA and its ideology. But the first nail in the coffin was the hiring of Tony Scott, whose Top Gun boosted Navy recruitment by glorifying its pilots. Never known for subtlety, Scott's sledgehammer style smashes through quiet moments,  placing a conversation between the two agents on a rooftop for no other apparent reason than to spin his camera about the scene superfluously in a helicopter. Instead of dramatic tension, we have music scored intrusively to broadcast an event's importance, and the time and its significance is thrown into our faces over the jarring slam of a black-and-white still frame (and the worn countdown device is useless since the film keeps us on two timelines, past and present).  The fast paced cutting full of gunfire and explosions that are Scott's trademark makes Spy Game play less like a movie than a feature-length commercial for sports cars or sunglasses. By the time Scott was finished, Redford was playing a role better suited to Clint Eastwood.

Brad Pitt certainly recognized that rewrites were killing the story when he complained publicly, angering studio executives, about the inane lines he was being asked to recite ("Being a grown man, I feel silly saying them."). Reportedly, even more changes were made after the tragedy of September 11, to be less critical of the CIA.

In the film we see, Muir laments that what motivates the agency in 1991 is the globalization of trade, not the good old ideals of yesteryear. In Berlin, he reminds Bishop that their trail of killing and betrayal serve a greater good, but he never identifies it. Scott assumes we know, but I sure don't. The Cold War? Yeah, right.

Although Beckner's original was likely a better script, it is unlikely to have been a great one since it gets so much comically wrong. Why, for example, would Muir and Bishop try to kill a North Vietnamese general in 1975, well after the U.S. agreement to withdraw from the conflict? The agency has been forbidden to engage in assassination without a presidential finding – a fact briefly alluded to in the Langley conference room, with the outrageous suggestion that this restriction is quietly ignored.  Had the CIA been so actively engaged in the field in Lebanon, as Beckner portrays them, their operations would not have been so eviscerated when suicide bombers struck the U.S. embassy. If they had been this active, they might not have been so blinkered that they missed the fall of the Soviet Union. In the wake of the World Trade Center catastrophe, and the CIA's failure to foresee the threat, we should be more critical of the agency, not less.

It's worth noting that the year in which Bishop meets Muir was also the year that Redford made Three Days of the Condor, and his presence here only makes us wistful for that smarter and savvier film. Nathan Muir's capacity to outsmart and manipulate was sorely needed elsewhere – in the suites of Universal's executives.

Directed by:
Ridley Scott

Robert Redford
Brad Pitt
Catherine McCormack
Stephen Dillane
Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Larry Bryggman

Written by:
Michael Frost Beckner
David Arata

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
acompanying parent
or adult guardian.








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