In the pilot episode of "NewsRadio," the criminally under-appreciated TV
sitcom, billionaire Jimmy James tells an associate that he is about to
leave his radio station to travel to the site of one of his construction
projects. Asked if he is going there to put together some mega-deal, he
replies, "No, I just like to look at the big trucks."
That basically covers me and the plot machinations of "Spy Game."
Between the primary storyline and the various flashbacks, there are
countless schemes, moves and counter-moves, alliances and double-crosses
that accomplish wonders. I couldn't explain the details to save my life,
but that doesn't matter, because simply watching it all play out is good
enough for me. I just like to look at the big trucks.
It helps that the labyrinthine story mechanics occur in exotic locales,
with edgy cinematography creating a "you are there" feel while
deceptively gentle music slowly ratchets up the tension level. A parade
of outstanding supporting actors helps to complete a cinematic
experience that works as an espionage thriller, a character study and a
Oh yeah – Robert Redford and Brad Pitt aren't bad either. Sharing the
screen for the first time (although they worked together before when
Redford directed Pitt in "A River Runs Through It"), the two blonde
matinee idols – one rugged with facial features cracked by time, the
other still looking smooth, beautiful and vaguely unfinished – each
compliment the skills of the other.
Pitt plays young CIA operative Tom Bishop, smart as a whip and a quick
study, but often the victim of his own passion and defiant will. As
always, Pitt finds a way to convey all the emotions of his character
while still appearing to underplay his role. He is a gifted artist and
the film provides him an ample forum for his considerable talents, but
make no mistake; this is Robert Redford's movie. As veteran secret agent
Nathan Muir, he gives perhaps the slyest performance of his career,
projecting both the piss and vinegar of Butch Cassidy and the stoicism
of the Sundance Kid.
The story begins in 1991, Muir's last day before retiring from the
agency. Of course, no one in the history of film has ever enjoyed a
quiet final day on the job, as Muir learns when upper management informs
him that Bishop, his former protégé, is being held in a Chinese prison,
where he is scheduled for execution within 24 hours.
Trying to decide what, if anything, to do about Bishop, a roomful of CIA
brass grill Muir on his relationship with Bishop, triggering a series of
flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the movie. Muir starts by relaying
the details of their first meeting, in Vietnam during the war. As Bishop
is recruited and trained, the narrative moves to West Berlin and on to
Beirut, where the relationship between Bishop and a female activist
(Catherine McCormack) threatens to destroy the men's friendship.
As the conversation/interrogation continues, Muir furtively contacts his
soon-to-be ex-secretary Gladys (the always-wonderful Marianne
Jean-Baptiste), working out his own plans in case the official decision
on Bishop fails to jibe with his.
Throughout the film, certain questions come up again and again. Can
ideals, friendships and romances survive lives of constant deception?
How many human souls is it acceptable to sacrifice in order to eliminate
a villain? When an agent adopts the techniques of terrorists to battle
terrorism, is he still one of the good guys?
In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, the questions are all the
more vital. Be prepared to squirm, particularly during a scene where an
Arab, apparently in league with the CIA, makes a suicide run to blow up
a building. A year or two ago, his actions might have drawn applause,
Lest any of this sound dry, let me assure you it is not. "Spy Game"
droops a bit in the middle, but not due to moral debating. Although
director Tony Scott ("Tip Gun, "True Romance") loses his footing
momentarily, he soon regains his balance while continuing to juggle taut
action with moral conundrums.
Incidentally, Scott plays out one of the oldest movie clichés in the
book during an old-school action segment. As any veteran filmgoer knows,
if a food cart, flower cart or pane of glass appears on the street, its
imminent destruction by a person or vehicle traveling at high speed is
assured. Suffice to say that the cliché lives on here.
Ah, but such a lapse is easily forgiven (and good for a laugh) in a film
as rewarding as "Spy Game." Perhaps during a future viewing I'll figure
out the logistics of some of the plot lines. In the meantime, I'll be
content to mull over the ideas, savor the acting of Brad Pitt and
(especially) Robert Redford, and just look at the big trucks.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott