Spy Game (2001)
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata
Cinematographer: Dan Mindel
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a film that I always figured was going to be a cheesy piece of action trash, whose title alone is enough to make you question putting it on. Here’s a story that combines history, espionage, and inter-office politics all toward creating an exceptionally well produced and engaging story, with my only issue residing in pieces of early 00s editing and graphics that either were a symptom of Tony Scott’s inability to keep with what work for him prior, or studio heads requiring more clarity. Having had a general idea of what this film was and being completely wrong, it was exciting to watch this story unfold, with no clue of where it was going.
The story starts off in a Chinese Prison, with a pure action-spy scene involving Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) as he tries to free a doctor Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormick) from a People’s Liberation Army prison. Tom fakes an electric shock, is injected with a serum that stops his heart, gets checked by the guards, is filed dead, wakes up, rescues the girl, and is about to escape via ambulance before getting stopped by the guard when one of them notices a prisoner chewing bubble gum. And that’s just the first five minutes or so.
With those stupid sped up, veering helicopter shots that punch in and out of city skylines, which I now associate with bad reality television, we head back to the states where the CIA calls Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) who’s on his last day of work before retirement to the Bahamas. Bishop is going to be killed in 12 hours - at 8am! (exclamation point denoting an awkward, overly intense black and white freeze frame with timestamp when this countdown is mentioned and will repeat periodically with equal degrees of cringeworthiness). They learn that Muir had trained Bishop, having first met him during Vietnam, traveling through such events as the mid-70s peak of precariousness Berlin and the Civil War in Beirut.
The story starts out rough, with the abovementioned freeze frame graphics, though especially during the Vietnam section when Scott (or the Studios) use an uninspired sepia tone to symbolize the war’s dreariness. Soon, though, the story expands, showing us 1970s Berlin and Beirut and in a pre-computer generated world. The film reminded me of Enemy at the Gates in terms of its vast production value - with each world (except Vietnam) feeling incredibly real and expansive.
Counter this to the office environment and I’d bet my Criterion Collection that writer Michael Breckner had read Norman Mailer’s "Harlot’s Ghost" as inspiration for this novel, as both focus on the nuts and bolts of the CIA, leaving the romanticism reserved for Tom Bishop’s story. What we get is a type of inter-office political thriller, where petty and cheap conflicts, based on a grand understanding that what they’re all doing is Important (sic), where only those who work the office correctly can get up to the top. Redford is one of a kind in playing the likeable and dependable character who’s able to easily connect, while simultaneously calculating his next move. With the faux-tribunal thinking that Bishop went rogue and deserved execution, Muir tries his best to help his alleged friend (another fantastic layer, coming to that later) by leaking the story to CNN, borrowing and forging documents, selling his stocks, all in an effort to save Bishop while staying beneath the radar.
I kept thinking how difficult this role had to have been - to portray yourself as truthful and honest while constantly formulating plans that will betray your colleagues. The story is very much about acting, as its one of the spy’s greatest assets - to formulate an alternative biography and to keep the facts consistent with that personality. In the film’s best scene, as Muir learns that Bishop has met a woman, causing him to become neglectful, he meets both Bishop and Hadley at a cafe. The two put on their act, but soon Muir drops the act, asking Hadley what side she’s on for the Beirut conflict. Hadley reacts brilliantly, immediately knowing that Muir isn’t some random friend, but not wanting to fully show her true self to Bishop; that is, until Muir pours out the facts about her exile from London and connection to the terrorist organizations that fund her hospital. Typically the love interest in spy films is offensive and shallow, but without drawing attention to it directly, what better person for Bishop to fall in love with than another spy? Muir, acting as the father figure, very much understands this. Bishop doesn’t, and he breaks off their relationship, seeking reassignment.
It’s at this point that makes you see that their relationship is very much one of father and son. No matter Bishop’s anger, Muir retains his care for him, willing to risk everything, including his house in the Bahamas, in order to rescue the guy. Muir isn’t some upper level bureaucrat or executive. He’s middle management through and through, and Scott shows us this might be the only position an honorable individual could reside in the CIA. The ending reminded me of The Usual Suspects, the flashbacks a bit like Forrest Gump, and the action obviously inspiring the Jason Bourne films. It’s films like this, where you can feel the money all over the screen with extravagant set pieces that makes you nostalgic for the early 00s closing out the modern action film. When I see a film like Spectre that cost over twice as much and yet seems mild in practical effects and top heavy with computer VFX, you can’t helping wanting another film like Spy Game. Tony Scott was made to make engaging action films. It’s a shame that he’s no longer with us.
BELOW: Gotta love a good training montage
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