Title: Spy Game

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 145 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company: Universal; Beacon

Director; Writer: Tony Scott; Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata (story original for this movie)

Producer: Douglas Wick and Marc Abraham

Cast:  Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack

Technical: Panavision, digital

Relevance to doaskdotell site:  literary construction, expansive political history



This spy film was particularly interesting to me because of its layered, topical approach to storytelling, with the workmanlike use of detailed flashbacks to stitch together a historical perspective of about twenty years of our country’s foreign policy and counter-terrorism, with attention to Vietnam, the Middle East, the Bertlin Wall, and China.


The setup is rather simple, almost mundane.  Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is starting his last day of work at the CIA in Langley, Virginia in 1991 when he learns that his younger protégé, Tony Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested in China and is likely to be executed. To pull off a mission to help his friend with some black ops “off the books” he has to brief his bosses.  He tells the blocked story of Bishop’s career from his perspective, starting in Laos around 1972 when Bishop is a sharpshooter in the Marine Corps. Soon, Bishop is recruited in Germany while still in uniform, but Muir quickly teaches him the skills of the spy’s life. Moral dilemmas are developed in episodes around the Berlin Wall and later in Beirut, when the CIA helps with a Syntex bombing that takes out a terrorist cell (and implodes a building in spectacular fashion) but also knowingly kills many civilians.  Bishop becomes increasingly troubled by the “immorality” of undercover war fought by civilians.  There is also a distant romance between Bishop and a British spy, and it calls to mind Crosby’s novel “An Affair of Strangers” from the 1970s. But with this style of storytelling, the movie is able to convey a tremendous amount of history along with the issues that several of these episodes posed.  We need to see more filmmaking like this; typically expansive political history is only shown on cable, even though critics and literary agents tend to look upon this style of writing as artificial and episodic. For the fiction-writing world, this movie provides an interesting example of “plot framing: by making one character the “omniscient observer” in telling the story even if that observer could not have been present for all of the events.


Tony Scott had directed Enemy at the Gate (for Lions Gate) earlier this year.  This film is rich with location photography: Budapest, Berlin, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Vancouver, London, Morocco, Washington, D.C.  One little slip: it doesn’t snow in northern Virginia in April (not very often).  


Universal has souped up its “Valkyrie: musical trademark even with the “E.T.”




Related reviews:  The Good Shepherd, etc.


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