With “”Spy Game,”" you get two movies for the price of one, though only one works its way to a satisfactory conclusion. The first, and more substantial, of the two occurs through flashbacks, as CIA operative Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) lures U.S. military sharpshooter Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) from the frontlines of the war in Vietnam to serve the elusive government agency.
The second story, set in the present day, frames Muir and Bishop’s working relationship and gives us a reason to invest in said flashbacks. On Muir’s last day before retirement, he receives word that his prized protege, Bishop, has been arrested for espionage outside of Hong Kong. Muir knows the charges are false, but his efforts to uncover information are repeatedly blocked by internal red tape. To prevent his student’s execution, Muir must walk a tightrope of office politics and political hand-wrangling that revolves loosely around our government’s valuable trade relationships with China. As Muir manipulates his co-workers into revealing confidential information, we’re provided with insight into how he came to know and work with Bishop. We learn how Muir finessed the idealistic officer’s military assignments so he’d eventually be ripe for the picking. We even tag along on harrowing missions through scenic West Germany andBeirut. Finally, we meet Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a deceptively beautiful missionary who captures Bishop’s heart and raises Muir’s omnipresent suspicions. By all accounts, the backstory told in the film’s flashbacks holds our interest longer than the talkative potboiler that outlines the plot. Pitt and Redford’s deliciously airtight interactions streamline these sequences, and director Tony Scott lends a distinctive visual texture that bleaches out the parched locales and properly roughs up the action. Redford and Pitt actually show us the torch being passed from veteran to protege, with so many “”teacher/student”" scenarios and age jokes made at the expense of the weathered leading man.But Scott also seems to realize his flashback sequences are far more interesting than his wordy frame story, so he spends a good deal of time flushing out the past, often abandoning the events that take place in CIA headquarters altogether. Given Redford and Pitt’s natural chemistry, we hardly mind spending more time with them, but it does steal away from the impact of Bishop’s imprisonment and Muir’s efforts to rescue him. The director, known for his stark visual approach and dizzying camera motions, attempts to jumpstart the stagnant outer story by freezing frames and injecting a digital clock that counts down the hours until Bishop’s execution, in case you weren’t paying attention or, worse, just forgot what Muir was racing to prevent. Gimmicks like this, though, just can’t juice endless sequences of Redford juggling phone calls or racing through corridors so he can pour over a folder of important classified documents. “”Spy Game”" has the makings of a good movie – had Scott continued to explore his characters’ twisty, volatile pasts – but right now its only 65 minutes long and encased in another 60 minutes of beurocratic debris.Final Grade: C-By Sean O’ConnellNov. 21, 2001