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.
Michael Frost Beckner
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
or adult guardian.