SPY GAME (2001) was director Tony Scott’s first feature film of the twenty-first century, but its focus is very much on the American Century that preceded it (and how it continues to shape the world stage today). It’s one of Scott’s best films, and my personal favorite of his.
I’m unsure of how my original DVD copy of SPY GAME came into my possession. One day, it just appeared on the bookshelf nestled in between the others. I was at the age where I began voraciously consuming films, not just for entertainment, but to study the craft I aimed to pursue as a career (a decision I had made only a few years prior). As such, SPY GAME became the first Tony Scott film I ever watched, right around the time I became aware of his brother, Ridley.
SPY GAME plays like an intense romp through the various theatres of the Cold War, from the perspective of two CIA agents. The action is framed by a story set in the present-day, and almost entirely within the labyrinthine confines of CIA headquarters. It’s Nathan Muir’s (Robert Redford) last day on the job before his retirement, and he’s been called into a meeting with CIA bureaucrats to divulge his knowledge on the exploits of his old apprentice, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who’s been captured during a failed rescue mission at a Chinese prison. Muir recounts his relationship with Bishop, from their meeting in Vietnam to their collaboration and subsequent conflict in mid-80’s Beirut. All the while, he clandestinely uses CIA resources at his disposal to plan a raid that will rescue Bishop.
It’s an incredibly intricate and involving story that allows Scott to work at his highest level as a director. The extended flashbacks to Vietnam, West Germany, and Beirut aren’t just a way to visualize Muir’s stories on-screen, they inform the present-day narrative and give a justified context to his actions. We see Muir utilize the tricks he’s accumulated over his entire career, almost like a student taking a final on the last day of school. It’s a subtle, interesting way to frame a story that spans decades.
The performances are incredibly strong, especially from the two leads. This was the first time I had ever seen a performance by Redford, and it informs all subsequent viewings of his work for me. He’s stoic, paternal and incredibly sly. It’s easy to see why Pitt’s Bishop is so successful under his mentorship. Muir’s friendly, affable demeanor is disarming– and he knows exactly how to use that to his advantage. By contrast, Pitt is young, brash, and hotheaded. The character as written has a tendency to veer into cliche, but Pitt gives a captivating performance that makes the character come alive. It’s funny that the two men almost resemble each other in appearance, but it does go a long way in establishing a completely believable friendship.
SPY GAME is arguably the best fusion of story, subject matter, and Scott’s personal style. Scott keeps his aesthetic restrained just enough so it’s not distracting, but allows for a unique punch to the pacing and visuals. He re-teams with ENEMY OF THE STATE’s cinematographer Dan Mindel, who imbues the Anamorphic frame with deep contrast and stylized colors. Due to the globetrotting nature of the film, Scott gives the images a different color palette depending on the location and time period. Vietnam is extremely high in contrast, incredibly grainy, slightly overexposed and heavily saturated with a golden tint that borders on duo-tone. Scenes that take place in West Germany are more blue and desaturated (while Hong Kong/China is shown to be blue and heavily saturated). Beirut has saturated, even colors with a slight overexposure. And finally, the present-day sequences set in DC are evenly-colored and saturated for a pseudo-neutral look.
Other elements that make up Scott’s style present themselves aggressively throughout the story. There’s the always-reliable “overblown light through curtains” trope, timestamped black-and-white freeze frames, time-ramped establishing shots filmed from a helicopter, as well as a constantly moving, restless camera, among others. Scott’s preoccupation with surveillance imagery is ripe for exploitation in a story about the CIA, and he finds ample opportunity to include mixed media and found surveillance footage.
Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the film’s score, which actually results in a surprisingly memorable set of tracks. Gregson-Williams infuses the picture with a crunchy, technopop theme composed of pulsing electronic elements and soaring, cinematic strings. There’s also the presence of a haunting male vocalist during the Beirut sequences that works incredibly well. I’m such a fan of the score that I’ve used bits and pieces of SPY GAME’s score as temporary backing tracks to some of my own early works (which we will never, ever discuss). Frankly, I think it’s some of Gregson-Williams’ best work, and elevates the film itself to an entirely new level.
It’s easy to see why Scott decided to direct SPY GAME. The themes are potent for exploration, nevermind the fact that they are well within his wheelhouse. It’s funny to see the paranoia within the CIA, and how information is kept from one’s allies – not just one’s enemies. In the world of SPY GAME, knowledge is a commodity more precious than gold, and Muir knows it well. His ability to stay one-step ahead of his superiors is what allows him to orchestrate a full-scale military operation under their noses. SPY GAME is an effective survey of the Cold War, a thrilling meditation on information as currency and power, but ultimately, it’s a riveting film about a “father” risking everything to rescue his “son” from certain death.
When he’s working with good, original material, Scott shines brighter than any other director in his league. SPY GAME, an extremely underrated gem of a film, is a testament to that fact. There’s a reason that, even after watching the majority of his output, this film is still my favorite of his. It may not be his greatest work in the eyes of the public, but it deserves to be seen, and it rests comfortably in that little nostalgic corner of my memory. In the twelve years since I’ve seen it, it’s only gotten better with age.
SPY GAME is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal.