The latest espionage-thriller "Spy Game" begins in 1991, as veteran CIA agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford, seen recently in "The Last Castle") is about to retire. Unfortunately, what is supposed to be a quiet day is thrown into disarray when he receives news that his young protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt of "The Mexican") has been arrested in China following a failed rescue mission and is scheduled to be executed within 24 hours. In addition, Muir's bosses at the CIA are willing to sacrifice Bishop in order to avoid an international incident and jeopardize some upcoming trade talks. As part of the cover-up, Muir is hauled into a top-level meeting with top-level CIA brass and asked to shed some light on Bishop's 16-year career at the CIA as part of a 'fishing expedition' for incriminating evidence. However, as the veteran CIA operative relates details on how he met Bishop in Vietnam, recruited him in West Germany, and ended their professional relationship in Beirut, Muir secretively puts together a rescue plan, using every resource and bureaucratic trick known to him...
While "Spy Game" is a decent effort in its first half, it becomes an even stronger one in the second, once all the pieces have been put in place. The film is ultimately about Muir's redemption, how he tries to make up for decades of moral ambivalence and cynicism with one courageous and selfless act. As Muir's self-reflection jumps between four different time periods, a sharp contrast is drawn between Muir and Bishop. Whereas the younger CIA agent is shown to be idealistic and compassionate, Muir is a hardened operative who sees the potential for betrayal and deception in everyone, and is willing to wheel-and-deal in human lives in order to get the job done. To Muir, nobody is to be trusted and the end always justifies the means. However, by the time the last reel unspools, not only is it clear that Muir has finally found some higher moral ground, but there is a hint that his involvement in the precipitating circumstances may have been far greater than anyone has imagined.
Given that "Spy Game" was produced prior to September 11th, Muir's old hard-line perspective is of particular relevance, since this is the same stance being courted by governments and law enforcement agencies in the new war against terrorism. Like "Training Day", "Spy Game" raises the question as to how far as a society we are willing to go in order to safeguard the public-- not only does "Spy Game" illustrate state-sanctioned assassinations, but it also puts the 'good guys' on the side of a suicide bomber. In the film, as it is in the real world, the end may justify the means, but there are always consequences.
Technically, "Spy Game" is polished, with director Tony Scott ("Enemy of the State") bringing his MTV-school-of-filmmaking techniques to bear on what is essentially a 'talking heads' movie. And while Scott's frenzied approach brings a greater visual dynamic to some very subtle and dry material (probably the most low-key film that Scott has worked on, compared to "Top Gun" and "True Romance"), it also becomes a bit of a distraction after awhile.
Redford's portrayal of Muir is superb, playing a man who has spent years keeping his cards close to his chest and goes about effecting change the only way he knows how-- under the radar and in the dark. Pitt capably handles the role of Bishop, a young man who gradually becomes more and more disillusioned by his experiences in the CIA, while Catherine McCormack ("Braveheart") has a key role as a foreign aid worker with whom Bishop becomes romantically involved with. Among the supporting cast, Marianne Jean-Baptiste ("28 Days") stands out as Muir's loyal secretary, while Stephen Dillane ("Welcome to Sarajevo") is fun-to-watch as a back-stabbing CIA bureaucrat who gets his well-deserved comeuppance.
Moviegoers expecting an action-packed brawn-over-brains espionage thriller in the vein of James Bond will likely be disappointed by what "Spy Game" has to offer. Instead, "Spy Game" is a thinking man's spy film, offering more of a John Le Carré flavor by placing its emphasis on the gamesmanship and the human toll of international espionage. And though the film runs a little long and dry in places, "Spy Game" ends up not only being an engrossing tale of redemption, but also a thought-provoking reflection on matters of security and morality in the post-September 11th world.