Action with brains
In so many ways, Spy Game, a CIA thriller starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, is one of the more original and thought-provoking films released in its genre. Yes, it has some dry spells, but it also offers up many surprises. It comes off as a complex psychological drama about what it takes to be a spy and makes some bold statements about the role of politics and commerce in the spy game.
The film is set in 1991, and Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is getting through his last day at the CIA before his retirement. He’s called into a videotaped meeting with cohorts to find out that his former protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been taken prisoner in China and is due for execution in 24 hours. The countdown starts as Muir recalls Bishop’s training and eventual departure from the CIA after a mission that didn’t mix with his sense of morality.
Bishop has been imprisoned for espionage after trying to rescue a prisoner, whose identity is revealed cleverly through Redford’s recollections. Bishop is no longer a member of the CIA, and with the U.S. about to enter into major trade negotiations with China, it appears the CIA is looking for a reason to allow the Chinese government to execute him. This sets up one of the film’s more entertaining aspects: Muir must secretly maneuver in a race against time to save his friend’s life.
I love the span and scope of this movie, as Redford’s character recounts Pitt’s introduction to the CIA and the events leading up to his defection. The two meet in 1975 in Vietnam, where Bishop is a soldier and sharpshooter preparing for an assassination. One of the film’s greater moments of suspense involves Pitt trying to keep a human target in focus as an enemy helicopter fires upon him. It’s a strong depiction of the iron will and focus of Bishop, something Redford’s operative notices instantly.
Other flashbacks depict West Berlin, where Redford recruits Pitt, and Beirut, the site of Bishop’s breakdown and decision to go rogue. Director Tony Scott (the awful Top Gun, the excellent Crimson Tide) presents a nice action-thriller during the flashback sequences and sufficient tension during the closed-door meetings among the operatives in ‘91. I can’t attest to the film’s accuracy, because I don’t know a damn thing about the CIA, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Redford makes a nice recovery from this year’s lousy The Last Castle with one of his greatest performances. I completely bought him in the role of an icy-on-the-surface agent, continuously bashing rules into the head of his protégé—rules he himself may eventually break. Pitt has always been one of my favorite actors in his age group, and it’s a great thing to see him sharing screen time with Redford. It was Redford who gave Pitt his breakthrough role in A River Runs Through It, and the two make for a great screen pairing.
I’ve seen countless spy movies, but I have never seen one so effectively depict the morality and emotional detachment required of spying. Spy Game creates a true sense of an operation existing out there—a parallel universe—that lives by a different set of rules and stops at nothing to achieve its cause. The film wisely does not preach or take sides. Its timing is impeccable, considering recent world events.
There are some long-winded sequences that take away from the suspense Scott manages to produce through the majority of the film, but the performances and end result are worth the occasional pothole. Spy Game is that rare achievement: an action film starring big names that is heavy on the brain juice and light on the standard boom-boom. It’s an impressive feat.