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Spy Game

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
Spy Game
from Film Forum, 11/29/01

Good and evil are not so clear in this week's slick new big screen thriller, Spy Game.

Tony Scott, director of blockbuster action films like Top Gun, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State, has crafted another intelligent popcorn flick, and this one boasts the strongest lead talents of any film he's made so far. Robert Redford stars as Nathan Muir, a seasoned CIA professional readying for retirement; and Brad Pitt plays his prodigy, Tom Bishop.

When Bishop gets caught and tortured by the Chinese on the eve of an important and volatile presidential visit to China, the CIA wants to find a politically convenient excuse to forget about him and leave him to his painful fate. But Muir is not that kind of mentor. He's not about to leave his man behind.

Critics in the religious media praised Scott's technique, but had mixed feelings about the story itself. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) reports, "Spy Game is an intellectual thriller much more than it is an emotional roller coaster. Screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner … certainly has insight as to the workings of the CIA and some of the moral questions that arise from men who work as undercover agents in hostile territories." He found some of it perhaps too challenging: "The structure of the screenplay does lend to some difficulties in comprehension." He finds no challenges in watching Redford and Pitt work together, saying both are at the top of their game.

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls Spy Game an "engagingly written, visually arresting thriller. It neither confuses, nor condescends." But he objects to hearing men under pressure resorting to profanity. "Had they taken the language down a notch, Spy Game would have been a worthwhile flick."

"Seeing Redford and Pitt on the screen together is all a story needs to give it passion and purpose," raves Holly McClure (The Orange County Register). "Scott goes well beyond both of those ingredients to deliver an exciting, well-written, edge-of-your-seat spy adventure that will satisfy any fan of the genre."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) is relieved that the film is "not an anti-American diatribe, though it does not paint a pretty picture of the greedy contemporary CIA." He is most troubled by the portrayal of "moral" heroes whose "radical individualism" excuses them from certain moral responsibilities. "A little understanding of moral virtue by the filmmakers would have sharpened the distinction between good and evil in the story and improved the movie tremendously."

John Adair (Preview) writes, "Spy Game is definitely a 'guy-movie' with several exciting action sequences, plenty of suspense, and some top-notch acting. Director Tony Scott also makes good use of the camera, which in turn consistently heightens the intensity throughout." But he disqualifies the film as worthwhile viewing, however, due to "strong obscenities."

Personally, I found the harsh language to be a properly realistic element. An expletive or two would not be out of place in these circumstances. What I found truly troubling was the way Muir, who gripes about the lack of ethics among CIA superiors, gives himself permission to break laws, lie to American authorities, and sneak around behind their backs to do what he thinks is right. Sure, it's a bad situation, having one of your best men stuck behind enemy lines … but should Muir be endangering national security, risk a major embarrassment in the press, and subvert complicated political procedures to carry out an operation all his own?

Tony Scott's stylish direction keeps the tension high, but I found the rapid-cut editing and hyperactive camerawork to be distractions from an interesting and complex plot. Worse, the film doubts the intelligence of its audiences, constantly reminding us "the clock is ticking" and that the hour of Bishop's execution draws ever closer. The love story that surfaces in the second half of the film seems one of those only-in-the-movies developments. As the film progresses, the heroes wear the scars of their adventures, but an undercover beauty who has been imprisoned and subjected to harsh treatment emerges looking as pure as a Revlon commercial.

Most viewers were on the edge of their seats, and I too was caught up in the cliffhanger countdown. But afterwards I realized that I had been maneuvered into rooting for a dangerously reckless and presumptuous man. We're left admiring Muir's "cool" while the administrators of American government are painted as sloppy, half-witted buffoons. In a time when the need for respectful citizens and respectable government seems more crucial than ever, these are rather dissonant chords.

While it is not the film's intent to question the ethics of its central characters, Spy Game raises questions about the boundaries that should be set for spies. Just how far can their deceit go in the name of national security? Is it ever appropriate to endanger the lives of innocent civilians in the name of eliminating a terrorist or a warlord? What does Scripture show us about devious endeavor done in the name of king and country?