Spy Game (2001) Movie Review

The CIA is a complex agency. It was originally created after World War II to continue U.S. intelligence gathering overseas, taking over from the OSS, but in the last 20 years or so it’s become something of an enigma. Some people look at the CIA as a single, shadowy monolithic agency that lives in perpetual darkness; others see it as bumbling and inept. Maybe this is what the CIA wants — a divided public unsure of the agency’s purpose. Maybe, in an odd way, this was what they wanted all along, to keep everyone off-balance. Personally, I believe the CIA is somewhere in the middle. Not entirely monolithic and all-knowing, but also not entirely incompetent.

Whatever the truth may be, Tony Scott’s Spy Game takes place in the world of the intelligence operative — or in ’80s terminology, the spy world. It’s 1991, and the juggernaut that is the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapsing, America is attempting to break through China’s trade barriers, and the Cold War is winding down. Robert Redford is Nathan Muir, a veteran field agent who recruits and then trains Boy Scout Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt).

The two works side by side as boss and prot’g’ until a mission gone bad separates them. They are sort of reunited on the day of Muir’s retirement when Muir gets news that Bishop has been captured and is presently in a prison in China awaiting execution. Tony Scott shows us how Bishop got caught, but the why of the matter is left for us to explore as Muir returns to work for his final day in a desperate attempt to rescue his former prot’g’ from the jaws of death. Why is Muir so desperate to rescue Bishop? It seems Bishop didn’t have proper clearance to be in China and the CIA has no plans to rescue him — even worst, the CIA has denied all knowledge of Bishop and has left him to be killed. Why exactly was Bishop there in the first place? Muir may know more about it than he’s letting on…

The most interesting thing about Spy Game is not the inner workings of the CIA. I was not entirely interested in the inner machinations of the CIA or its inner personality conflicts. Muir’s problems with the newer, younger “kids on the block” has been done to death, and this version of the conflict brings nothing new to the table. We know Muir knows more than the upstarts and we know the upstarts don’t respect Muir and what he’s done. Blah blah blah.

The real treat of Spy Game is watching Redford and Pitt interact through the years. Redford’s training of Pitt begins in Vietnam, then quickly moves to early ’70s Germany, which has been split into two countries, East and West, then shifts to Lebanon during the bloody civil war of the ’80s. Scott films the four separate eras — Vietnam, Germany, Lebanon, and the present, which takes place in the CIA’s main office in Langley Virginia — in slightly different styles that gives each era a distinctive feel. Vietnam is bleached out and brown; Germany is dark and brooding; Lebanon is bright and chaotic; and the present is subdued and paranoid. Oddly enough, despite all the action that takes place in the flashbacks, the most intense scenes occur in the present, as Muir maneuvers through the politics and paranoia of various CIA offices, and uses every trick that he once taught Bishop in the field to fight the bureaucracy of the CIA.

Acting is superb by Pitt and Redford. Spy Game could be seen as something of a passing of the torch, from the veteran Redford to the young Pitt. Both men have achieved similar successes in the movies and are famous enough that they could do any movie they choose. Within the wide confines of Spy Game, which takes place over a span of 16 years, both actors play their characters as not only aging physically, but mentally as well. Pitt’s Bishop goes from naïve sniper in the war to a smooth and manipulating spy, but one that still can’t shake his own inner goodness that makes him feel sorry for the “assets” he is forced to use like tools instead of flesh and blood people.

Redford’s Muir goes from an agent who is all about the missions to a man who risks it all, including his life pension, to save the prot’g’ he hasn’t seen since Lebanon. While both men are portrayed as likeable, Muir has an edge to him that makes him not a complete good guy. Indeed, we later learn in the film that he, and others at the agency, may be more responsible for Bishop’s capture than we first thought. And yet, as played by Redford, Muir is as true believer in the cause, and will — and has — done anything in his power for the “greater good.” Pitt’s Bishop, on the other hand, can never fully accept this doctrine as laid down by his mentor.

Overall, Spy Game is a very, very good movie. The only fault that I can find comes toward the end, when the filmmakers wrap up the film much too quickly, leaving very little room for tension. The climactic scene should have been given more space to breathe and develop, but as it stands, the ending feels rushed and did not have the suspense that permeated the rest of the movie. It’s a small fault, but unfortunately it does take place at a most crucial point in the film.

Tony Scott (director) / Michael Frost Beckner, David Arata (screenplay)
CAST: Robert Redford …. Nathan Muir
Brad Pitt …. Tom Bishop
Catherine McCormack …. Elizabeth Hadley
Stephen Dillane …. Charles Harker
Larry Bryggman …. Troy Folger

Buy Spy Game on DVD