I saw Spy Game (2001) shortly after it came out and remember quite liking it. Rewatching it for the list, I liked it even more. I expect I was initially attracted to all the spy genre bells and whistles, which are here in abundance. But it’s also a well structured story with a strong theme and a real heart to it, something the younger me missed the first time around.
It’s retirement day for old CIA hand Nathan Muir (Robert Redford); with one day left on the job, he’s looking to buy a house in the Bahamas and give up the spying life forever. But an early morning call from an overseas contact wakes him with a warning, and he quickly learns one of his former field agents, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been captured in China during a rogue operation to rescue a prisoner from a high security prison. Bishop has been charged with espionage and sentenced to execution in twenty-four hours. Worse, his actions have jeopardized a sensitive trade negotiation in China, and Muir immediately suspects the CIA investigating task force is likely to abandon him as a matter of political expediency. So Muir quickly sets to work maneuvering himself, as Bishop’s former handler, into a position to “aid” the investigation. While he illuminates the task force on Bishop’s recruitment and career in the field, he secretly, cleverly works to help rescue his friend — all without leaving the corridors of CIA headquarters.
A whip-smart performance by Redford propels this intelligent puzzler, which combines slick visual story-telling, crafty misdirection, and effective flashback narrative to tell its deftly structured story. It’s got a broad international scope, with engaging stretches set in Vietnam, West Germany, China, and Washington; I felt the pace lagged a bit during the critical Beirut sequence, but the extra time there is warranted for story, so the slow-down is at least understandable. While the cleverness of the tradecraft and Redford’s wily spymaster are the more outwardly enjoyable aspects of the film, it’s also a thematically rewarding one; underneath the surface action, the less direct depiction of the two agents’ friendship and their disagreements regarding the handling of assets in the field give the film a moving thematic frame. There are some lapses in realism, and a few dated moments, but not enough to severely damage an otherwise quite satisfying spy film.