Screenplay : Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata (story by Michael Frost Beckner)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Robert Redford (Nathan Muir), Brad Pitt (Tom Bishop), Catherine McCormack (Elizabeth Hadley), Stephen Dillane (Charles Harker), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Gladys Jennip), Larry Bryggman (Troy Folger)
In Spy Game, Robert Redford plays Nathan Muir, a 30-year veteran agent of the C.I.A. who finds out on the day of his retirement that his protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been captured while trying to liberate a prisoner from a Chinese prison during a rogue mission and is schedule to be executed in 24 hours. The real problem for Muir is that the top brass at the C.I.A. are looking for ways to cut Bishop loose in order to save face during crucial trade negotiations with China. When Nathan is brought in to the briefing, the government bureaucrats aren't looking for information that will help save Bishop, but rather information that will seal his fate—the sacrifice of one for the "greater good."
Ironically, this is exactly what Muir had been teaching Bishop, that men in their line of work sometimes have to use and sacrifice other people to achieve other ends. Bishop, an idealist who was nonetheless born for espionage, never quite understood this. Muir, however, being the seasoned pro, understands it perfectly, which is why his actions throughout Spy Game are so subversive. Essentially going against everything he has ever believed about his profession, Muir actively works against his own agency to save Bishop. Working the telephones, digging up information, conning fellow agents, and tapping old connections, Muir puts his entire career's worth of experience into one 24-hour mission to get Bishop out, regardless of the diplomatic fall-out likely to ensue (which, conveniently, is left to our imaginations).
Much of Spy Game unfolds in a jagged flashback structure. We see Muir and Bishop's relationship develop starting in the mid-1970s when they first meet in Vietnam, where Muir gives the young Bishop a dangerous assassination assignment. Much of the action then takes place in Beirut in the mid-1980s, where Bishop falls in love with a British revolutionary turned aid worker named Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack). This develops into a decisive wedge between Muir and Bishop, and it results in a fall-out. When Bishop is captured by the Chinese (the year at this point is 1991), he and Muir have not spoken in six years.
Thus, one of the crucial elements of Spy Game is that it has to convince us that Muir would undermine his entire belief system to rescue a man with whom he has had no contact in more than half a decade (he's not risking his career, though, since he's retiring that day). In this respect, the movie succeeds quite well, as the complex mentor-protégé / surrogate father-son relationship between the two men is well developed and convincing. Redford and Pitt, who worked together previously when Redford directed Pitt in his first major role in 1992's A River Runs Through It, strike a fine chemistry together, suggesting both deep affection and barely repressed competition. As much as Bishop respects Muir, you always get the sense that he is trying to get out from underneath his mentor's shadow, and it's unfortunate that it takes a major ideological rift between them for him to accomplish that.
Unfortunately, the movie stumbles badly in its portrayal of the relationship between Bishop and Elizabeth. Simply put, their relationship is never developed in a way that makes it believable that Bishop would sacrifice so much for her, including the lives of others (his allegiance to her at one point causes a large operation to misfire, resulting in extensive damage and unnecessary deaths). Elizabeth remains a sketchy and ill-defined character, and it is significant that she and Bishop have no intimate scenes together to show what they see in each other. Catherine McCormack is a good actress, but she has essentially been given a plot point, not a role, to play.
Director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State) has done enough movies of this sort that at times it feels like he's sleepwalking through the hyperkinetic camera movements and rapid-fire editing. He stages the movie as a series of eye-grabbing setpieces; even when Muir and Bishop are heaving a conversation, the scene is hyperstylized by placing them on top of a building and having a helicopter-mounted camera constantly circling them from afar. It's as if he doesn't trust the audience to stick with the story unless something is in motion. He does a good job of evoking the various time periods and conflicts that form that movie's background, with the scenes in war-torn Beirut being especially gripping. But, because the story itself is inherently flawed in not properly developing the human relationships needed to explain the characters' actions, too much of the movie comes off as overwrought style in search of a better story.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick