Spy Game is just that – a spy thriller that, in the tradition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, deals seriously with how the ruthless game is played. Spying is, in its own deadly way, a game–Team A out to get the perceived enemy, Team B–no holds barred. It’s the no-holds-barred part that leads to cynicism on the part of both participants and observers. Once all principles are abandoned for "the greater good" everything is easily turned on its head and what’s left is a bunch of people trained in skills of deception. Who can be trusted? Can anyone be trusted?
In Spy Game, veteran CIA officer Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is packing up his office on his way to retirement when one last caper is thrust upon him. Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), a protege of Muir’s, is locked up in a Chinese prison and sentenced to die the next day. Trade negotiations with China are in full swing and any attempt by the CIA to rescue Bishop might jeopardize the delicate diplomacy. When it becomes clear that the CIA will do nothing, Muir gets into gear–it’s a cat and mouse game with his own colleagues.
As the CIA bosses try to figure out what Bishop was up to, Muir is called into conference and questioned. That setup provides the framework for a series of flashbacks that fill in the backstory–how Muir recruited Bishop in the first place, Bishop’s training by Muir, escapades in Viet Nam, Berlin, and Beirut. Each of the episodes has its own bit of suspense and action, and each adds a piece of the puzzle, providing the motivation that resulted in the current predicament. Equally as important, each segment also serves to point up the nature of the spy game–the way people are used (they call them "assets"), deceived, manipulated, and coldly sacrificed.
Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State) gives the film a slick contemporary look with a predominance of blues and grays, smoke billowing everywhere, with quick cutting and zoom shots to enhance the action. Time stamps and location titles help keep the story clear. The Viet Nam episode is in faded-out sepia tones, distinguishing its look from the others. (How a manual typewriter remained in CIA headquarters in 1991 is a question best left to the trivia freaks.) Harry Gregson-Williams’ score adds the right touch of nervous energy and bolsters the suspense, without becoming unpleasantly obtrusive or deafening, as all too many action soundtracks do these days.
With a script that focuses on plot more than on characterization, it falls on the actors to flesh out their roles.Redford is a natural as the slick operator who has the confidence of a seasoned veteran of the game, outguessing his foes with keen observation, devilishly clever deduction, and a touch of well cultivated intuition. Pitt, as the grown up Boy Scout who is first manipulated into the trade and then becomes disillusioned, bridling at the unprincipled rules of the game, does what he can with the role, mostly radiating his natural charisma. In smaller roles, Stephen Dillane as the CIA manager trying to outwit Muir is the guy you love to hate, Catherine McCormack is fiery as a medical relief worker with political passion, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste keeps up with Redford as his savvy secretary. In a brief cameo, Charlotte Rampling has just enough time to make you wish for more.
Pure action/suspense/thriller fans may be a bit let down by Spy Game–there’s not a whole lot of suspense left when, after a couple of hours, it reaches its vaguely anti-climactic finale. But spy story fans should enjoy the intricacies of the scheming, the crosses and double-crosses, and the depiction of the icy obliquity built into–and accepted–as part of the system. "It’s like trading baseball cards," says Bishop, commenting on the casual exchanges of life and death from his young man’s point of view. "Do you remember when we could tell the good guys from the bad guys?" Muir asks at another point, the query of the veteran who has accumulated long experience.