Spy 100, #78: Spy Game

May 10, 2010

I saw Spy Game (2001) shortly after it came out and remember quite liking it. Rewatching it now, I like 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 nicely structured story with a strong theme and 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’s 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. 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.