movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


(© 2001 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)

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Spy Game

Tony Scott, director of Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide, brings together an intimate action thriller with his new film Spy Game. Though its timing is accidental, this is a particularly interesting time to view the careers of two CIA agents and the "game" of trading cooperative locals--coldly termed "assets"--to remove lethal enemies. These agents learn to serve political objectives, though their individual actions may or may not have government authorization.

Though the film has a gimmick, it is less contrived that Scott’s more recent efforts. Tom "Boy Scout" Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been captured during a rogue mission. He will be executed in 24 hours unless the administrators at Langley decide to claim him. Coincidentally, it is the last day before retirement for Nathan Muir (Robert Redford). The attempted rescue of Tom Bishop becomes his last game.

This is the second time that Brad Pitt has worked under tutelage of Robert Redford: Redford directed him in A River Runs Through It. I was struck then at how much Pitt reminded me of young Robert Redford, before Redford’s style of romantic leading man lost his sense of humor to become a glittering, stoic figure. Pitt has to date been a less traditional leading man, with roles that obscure his looks and demand a sense of whimsy and play (as in Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, and Snatch). Spy Game plays on the differing styles of Redford and Pitt. Redford’s Muir is an enigma to everyone: even the CIA is uncertain when his birthday is or how many times he has been married. Pitt’s Bishop is an apt pupil, with a mixture of daring and charm that makes him a "natural." Bishop is nicknamed "Boy Scout," because of where he learned to shoot and for his idealism that refuses to ice over. There are lessons that Bishop refuses to learn from the more cynical Muir.

The structure of the film is similar to The Usual Suspects: Muir has been asked by a task force to provide background on Bishop. Like Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint, Muir deliberately spins a drawn-out tale that follows Bishop and Muir’s relationship from Viet Nam to Berlin to Beirut--a tale that is meant to convince the panel that Muir is of value to them, while distracting them from Muir’s personal machinations. As unsympathetic as Muir may be in flashbacks, he is clever and charming as he maneuvers through Langley and its personnel.

These flashback scenes are shot in over-exposed, grainy footage, which establishes both the period and the charged atmosphere. Scott reunites with cinematographer Daniel Mindel (Enemy of the State), who makes good use of aerial photography, reinforcing the sense that spies have of always being spied on themselves. Norris Spencer, frequent collaborator of Tony, Ridley, and Jake Scott, provides the production design for the film, creating a specific sense of time and place for the international settings. Spy Game presents striking portraits of CIA involvements toward the end of the Cold War.

Unlike most action films, Spy Game is basically an intimate character-study of two men. The exciting action lies in their split-second decisions, with explosions and chases far in the background. Overall, the casting and the dialogue are more important than any action sequence. As his secretary Gladys, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies) is Muir’s only partner within Langley. Stephen Dillane sets the urgent, conspiratorial tone of Muir’s 24-hours as Charles Harker, Bishop’s contact in Hong Kong--the only person who shares Muir’s concern for "Boy Scout." It is in Bishop’s interaction with his "assets" in Lebanon that we see the agent that Bishop has fully become, not necessarily the agent that Muir wanted him to be. As relief worker Elizabeth Hadley, Catherine McCormack (Braveheart) is strong and intelligent, with a secret life of her own.

Redford and Pitt provide excellent performances that Scott choreographs against a rich sampling of recent history, a history that provides insight into questions that the government and public are both asking. Muir and Bishop are continually asked to weigh the costs of their work--and the prices that they are willing to pay are in question throughout the course of this thriller.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]