I can’t remember the last time I saw Brad Pitt in a movie where he wasn’t beaten to a bloody pulp. I’ve read enough about him to know that he resists the sexiest-man-alive image that’s been dumped on him, and that he seeks films where he might be allowed to look “ordinary,” or at least dirtied and damaged. Perhaps he sees this as an acting stretch, or perhaps he is (vainly) hoping that viewers will forget just how pretty he is. Whatever. He still looks amazing in Spy Game, during the course of which he ages some 15 years, and miraculously, never changes a bit, except, of course, when he’s beaten to that pulp. Then his eye swells up and face is bruised.
In Spy Game, Pitt plays a CIA assassin who’s gone “rogue” for a reason that is, needless to say, very good and that will be disclosed as part of the thriller plot. The movie opens as Tom Bishop (Pitt), also known as Boy Scout, is pretending to be a doctor delivering cholera inoculations, in order to sneak into a Chinese prison to rescue an unknown someone. After some tense seconds — conjured by director Tony Scott and DP Dan Mindel’s spiffy cinematography and Christian Wagner’s adroit cross-cutting — the plan goes terribly wrong, Tom is captured and held in a room where he is tortured mercilessly for the rest of the film. It looks really painful, too.
Obviously, the movie needs some other plot to make it go, and so… cut to Tom’s estranged mentor, superduper CIA agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), back in Washington DC (this location is typed across the bottom of the screen, after some very slick zoom-swish-time-lapsing camera jerks, so you can feel like you’re keeping up). Nathan wakes in his bed, alone (this looks like it might be crucial info, that a guy who looks like Redford is sleeping alone, but it only sort of means anything later), picks up his phone, gets the serious news from a contact in Hong Kong that he needs to “hustle,” because “Boy Scout’s in trouble.” Good thing he has a speedy, fine-handling green Porsche Carrera to get him from his apartment to the office, where it happens to be his last day before retirement. Wouldn’t you know: before he can shred his files and pack up his snapshots and plaques, there’s a horrible crisis to be sorted out.
Unsurprisingly, since he’s played by Redford, Nathan’s been a bit of a problem for the Agency himself. The year is 1991, so the CIA is pretty proud of itself and defiantly insular, and populated with smug types, including Harker (Stephen Dillane) and Folger (Larry Bryggman), who aren’t exactly unhappy to see Nathan go. But now that Tom’s capture is likely to trigger an “international incident” (spy-speak for “U.S. embarrassment”), they have to deal with nemesis Nathan one more time. Most of the film consists of their insidious questions to him about Tom, and his beautifully lit recollections of his relationship with Tom, from start (1975 Danang, just before the U.S. retreat from Vietnam, where Tom proves to be a phenomenal sniper) to recruitment (in West Berlin) to finish (they fall out in Beirut in the late ’80s, when Tom rejects the slippery morality that Nathan seems able to embrace so coolly).
These flashbacks are punctuated by returns to the grilling room, as the suits look for a reason to let Tom be executed by the Chinese (who have conveniently, for movie-plotting purposes, promised to kill him in 24 hours — I must have missed just why they tell the CIA this little tidbit). Lucky for Nathan, he’s got a brilliantly trustworthy secretary, Gladys (underused Marianne Jean-Baptiste), with her own bones to pick with the Agency, apparently just on general principle. As Tom’s life hangs in the balance, these two work a clever game throughout the day, slipping in and out of CIA file rooms and phone lines with alarming ease.
The premise is that Nathan is a really excellent spy, surrounded by numbskulls. He spots all the file titles that the other guys carry into the grilling room in plain sight (and close-up shots so you’re sure to see them) and keeps getting pages from his “wife” (the pager, also shown in close-up, indicates to you every time that the caller is GLADYS) that somehow never alert the suits to his shenanigans. While Nathan takes these calls, his back turned to the room full of his questioners, they proceed to talk about the case, supposedly behind his back but loud enough that he can hear everything they say. Yeesh: what kind of outfit is this CIA anyway?
Co-written by David Arata and Michael Frost Beckner (the last also responsible for 1993’s predictable Sniper, 1995’s ridiculous Cutthroat Island, and CBS’s new CIA melodrama, The Agency), Spy Game is a buddy romance more than a thriller. The boys bond in spectacular fashion — with a series of CIA “situations” (i.e., assassinations) as backdrops — such that director Scott deploys his usual boy bonding rituals, explosions and gunfire and such, as a means to character and relationship development (this is the man who, as everyone knows, made the equally smart and hateful Top Gun). Much like Goose and Maverick, Tom and Nathan share an intimacy based on their mutual love of risk and fear of commitment: who better to love than someone who’s bound to betray you or die?
Spy Game‘s flashbacks reveal a potentially complex father-son/romance combination, and create a strange nostalgia. The beginning of the relationship is especially rosy: Nathan is impressed by Tom’s talent (he learns fast how to case a room, drive like crazy through streets late at night, evade capture by puking in front of pesky cops, and charm his way into strangers’ apartments), and Tom is likewise enamored of Nathan’s smooth self-awareness. Eventually, though, they spat, with a major blow-out on a great-looking rooftop (a Fuji Film billboard featured prominently as the camera circles them again and again) over the value of human lives (or “assets” as they call their informants). Nathan, it seems, is more cynical than Tom wants to be.
They finally break up in Beirut, when Tom meets a girl, Elizabeth (Catherine MacCormack), a foreign aid worker who may be a nutcase or a spy herself. Nathan does his best to mess with this heterosexual romance, but only because he’s looking out for Tom. At this point, the film drops the flashback structure to focus on Nathan’s 1991 efforts to get Boy Scout out of China. The editing speed increases, the office subterfuges accumulate, and Redford, bless him, recalls his glory days in Three Days of the Condor: Nathan goes even goes so far as to call up CNN in an attempt to mess with CIA spin control, though it doesnt have quite the same world-saving effect as it did back in the olden days, since everyone’s in bed with everyone by 1991.
In other ways as well, Spy Game is overdetermined by its historical moment, presenting the CIA’s secrecy as a function of security clearances and specific smug types, rather than a pervasive inability to keep track of its agents, collate, interpret, or productively share its information. The film’s assumptions about the Agency, are, in a word, Before September 11, before top secret government agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) were revealed as not doing what they’ve been pretending to be doing all this time. (And, given recent revelations that information on terrorist threats was available and forewarnings were officially reported to CIA and other authorities, the scope of this fatal ineffectiveness is only beginning to surface.)
Spy Game can’t or won’t address such issues — it was made Before September 11, after all — but even within the limits of its fictional spy “game” sensibility, it is depressingly unthoughtful. Even Before September 11, most everyone paying attention knew that the CIA participates in assassinations, corrupt financing, and innumerable dirty deeds, demanding a capacity for cruelty that cannot be made public (you know, you can’t handle the truth). But Spy Game can’t admit that, and suggests instead that the moral men (and they are all men) inside the system can still pull it out, that action-packed crises are the result of individual, not systemic, failures.