There are movies that hit you in the heart, the gut, or the mind. Then there are films such as Spy Game, which laser in on that special, cultivated sector of the brain: your information processors. From the opening moments of Tony Scott’s tensely jumpy and data-jangled espionage thriller, we’re assaulted with big, important swirls of helicopter’s-eye camera movement, credits that flash like digital Armageddon warnings, as well as a logistically showy action ”situation”—Brad Pitt sneaks into a murky Chinese prison—that is laid out with a precision matched only by the utter cryptic nature of its purpose. If you’re having fun yet, you may just enjoy the rest of ”Spy Game,” which proceeds with the same cool kinetic spirit of communications-age onslaught. The film is brimming with plots, counterplots, dossiers, and sinister corrupt priorities, all held together by the telephoto obsidian gloss of Scott’s look-ma-no-pauses style.
In 1991, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, finds himself odd man out. The Cold War has ended, and Muir’s old-school methods, at once fearless and deeply interpersonal, have fallen out of favor in the new corporate CIA. Even his look, a professorial ensemble of herringbone jacket and sensible specs, stands in marked contrast to the dark power suits worn by his bosses. Muir, who can barely fight his way past the security checkpoints in his own office, is a relic, but he has been left behind by a CIA that is swimming in paranoid bureaucracy. In the film’s view, the agency has reduced itself from a bulwark of security to a glorified tool of capitalism.
As cowritten by Michael Frost Beckner (creator of the new CIA-set TV series The Agency) and David Arata, Spy Game, a stylishly moody and jacked-up cloak-and-dagger adventure, pulsates with facile geopolitical insight. At the same time, the film’s vision of the CIA—what’s right with it and what’s wrong with it—has a spark of genuine dramatic interest that overlaps, however unintentionally, with the urgency of our own current global concerns. On the last day before his retirement, Muir learns that Tom Bishop (Pitt), his former protégé, is trapped in that Chinese prison, and that the government doesn’t even want him rescued. (It seems that a skirmish could derail the new relationship between America and China—the priority, as Muir puts it, of ”free trade, microchips, toaster ovens.”) Muir is so far out of the loop that in order to save Bishop, he has to coerce his way into a top-security briefing and outwit his superiors right there at the conference table. The hook of the movie, and it’s a good one, is that he becomes a spy directly within CIA headquarters, tricking and cajoling and manipulating a regime grown bloated with complacency.
Muir, in essence, never leaves the Langley, Va., complex, yet that doesn’t stop Spy Game from leaping around the globe, and also back in time—to Vietnam, where Muir first encounters Bishop as a rawboned young assassin; to West and East Berlin in 1976, where he trains him in the ways of espionage; and, finally, to the hellish, jagged no-man’s-land rubble of Beirut in 1985, where Bishop puts his lessons to use by attempting to have a sheik murdered, and where he also leaves those lessons behind by falling into bed with one of his ”assets” (Catherine McCormack).
These extended flashbacks are the heart of the film, and they’re anchored by a subtle reversal of expectation. You don’t cast Redford and Pitt in the same movie without setting up a major oedipal-dreamboat vibe, yet if Muir sees Bishop as a younger version of himself, he doesn’t need to rein in the recruit’s rogue-youth ways; on the contrary, he teaches him to turn his heart to steel. Few actors besides Pitt could get away with playing such a cuddly cutthroat, but Spy Game ultimately belongs to Redford, who reinvigorates his nobility by drying it out, playing Muir with the subliminal sarcastic squint of an undercover Donald Rumsfeld. Redford has done the aging-knight bit before, but this may be the first time that he has used his rugged, handsome creases as a key thematic point in his acting. That intricately worn 60ish visage, with its robot flicker of a smile, seems the result of a lifetime of Muir’s holding back—his professional spook’s refusal ever to reveal what’s going on inside.
Spy Game is absorbing enough for a night out, yet the film never pretends to be more than a lavishly downbeat popcorn thriller; it ends up skittering over the very issues that lend it a modicum of vitality. Watching the movie, I kept wondering what might happen if a Hollywood artist of genuine force and vision, like Oliver Stone or Steven Soderbergh, dared to craft a global political thriller that took a dramatic look at the way the CIA actually operates, and how it now needs to change. The forces of art, suspense, and patriotism might be joined in a vital and complex embrace. In the meantime, a movie like Spy Game, with its dark-toned technological efficiency, looks a bit timelier than it might have four months ago, but also more comforting in its movieness than ever. B