Retro Review: In Defense of 'Spy Game'


How could this movie not be a monster hit? Robert Redford plays CIA mentor to Brad Pitt's apprentice-spy in a grounded Cold War-era espionage thriller.

But 2001's "Spy Game" was not a massive hit and is, objectively, a mediocre-to-decent film. Add to this that Pitt reportedly dropped out of "The Bourne Identity" to do this project and it's a double tragedy (at least for Pitt, I personally cannot imagine a different Bourne).

Despite "Spy Game" being precisely the kind of movie I personally should love, I too wasn't particularly impressed when I first saw the film 17 years ago. But it was a movie I eventually owned and would throw on sometimes for lack of a better idea. Somehow, the movie slowly infected my brain until it became one of my all-time favorites, as it remains today.

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For those unfamiliar, "Spy Game" is the story of Nathan Muir (Redford), a grizzled, end-of-his career CIA officer who recruits and later spies with Vietnam veteran and espionage newbie Tom Bishop (Pitt). When Bishop gets caught conducting an off-the-books operation in China and threatened with execution, it's up to Muir to save Bishop by playing a delicate cat-and-mouse game in CIA headquarters in Langley with the suits there who would rather let Bishop fry.

And already here I'm obliged to tackle what I think is the movie's biggest problem: It's structure. 

The present-day "real" timeline of the movie takes place only over those few hours at CIA headquarters, much of that time is spent in a conference room in which Muir tells other CIA officials about Bishop's history.

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And bless Director Tony Scott for trying to keep up the urgency by adding a couple flashy editing effects and random time-stamps as the clock ticks down to Bishop's likely death, but man, is this a boring way to tell this story.

While everyone's sitting around the conference table, Muir goes into Bishop's history, which is told in three flashbacks that serve as distinctive vignettes: Vietnam and Muir's first run-in with Bishop, Cold War Germany where Bishop is taught the tools of the espionage trade and battle-scarred Beirut where a mission the two work together goes very wrong.

Each of these movies-within-the-movie are actually solid short films, but between these stories there are coffee breaks, food is served and people pause to take phone calls. Any momentum built up is dashed as soon as the hollow, flurescent lights of the conference room reappear.

At one point Muir, himself momentarily frustrated by the endless talking, says, "Come on, guys, we're on the clock." Yes! Yes you are! Why are you telling a long story about Vietnam?!

But to me this problem -- and it admittedly a huge problem -- is really the only significant one in the film, and that's why I think I was eventually able to overlook it. 

Instead, I appreciate this movie as four distinct ones: the three flashbacks and then Muir's machinations at CIA headquarters. The Vietnam story is fine. The Germany story is my absolute favorite, because of course that's the one where Robert Redford is teaching Brad Pitt how to be a spy. (In this film, spies drink scotch, not martinis.) The Beirut story is pretty solid. And the CIA HQ story is really interesting after the conference call is over and Muir basically runs his own bureaucratic-but-somehow-thrilling operation within CIA cooridors.

When discussing the movie recently, a friend said it was clearly meant to be a passing-of-the-torch moment between Redford and Pitt. That didn't pan out exactly, but the two still have remarkable chemistry and the star power of each is no less diminished by proximity.

What I'm saying is, next time you get the chance, throw on "Spy Game" and see if you don't appreciate it a little more than you did last time. And maybe a little more the next time after that.

But then definitely throw on "The Bourne Identity" because it is, without a doubt, the best espionage film of the early 2000s.

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