TWO STARS - DISTURBING
The cynical premise on which Tony Scott creates “Spy Game” is that all people live a life of practical evil. Willing to use one another and political events for nationalistic and personal advantage, “Spy Games” presents the agents in the CIA as viperous manipulators who use their skills against one another as well as other nations.
The attempt to redeem such a view is inherent within the plot of the film as Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) takes clandestine action to save the life of his young apprentice Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), but even this act is necessary because of Muir’s moral and relational disregard earlier created the present crisis.
It is the relationship between Muir and Bishop that fuels both the morality and the action of the film.
Nathan Muir is an experienced CIA operative who first enlists the help of Bishop during the Vietnam war to assassinate a Viet Cong general. Demonstrating amazing determination and strength in the face of danger, Muir decides that Bishop is a “natural” for the CIA. But rather than simply inviting Bishop to join the agency in its mission to serve our nation, Muir manipulates Bishop’s life and increasingly isolates him until he is emotionally and relationally vulnerable before he makes his offer.
It is this manipulation of Bishop that creates the repulsive moral morass in which all the later action is set. Although Muir has a moment when he asks if anyone can tell the good guys from the bad ones, it is clear that this film sees little difference. Everyone is presented not only as flawed human beings, but also as self-serving, manipulative, egotistical and willing to destroy the lives, reputations and worth of others.
The telling of the tale is done from an historical perspective. Bishop has 24 hours to live having been foiled in his attempt to rescue the only person he has ever loved, Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack). During that 24 hours we are taken through a twenty year relationship in which we experience the creation and education of Bishop’s spy career.
Though we won’t spoil the intrigue of the film, one of the most touching moments is when Bishop gives Muir a gift of a whisky flask in a restaurant in Beirut during the middle of a conflict. Obviously looking to Muir as more than a business associate, it is clear that Bishop looks up to Muir as a father-figure and guide to his life.
This trust is misplaced. Moments later, in an act that can only be described as evil, Muir betrays Bishop and removes Elizabeth from his life and deceives him. Though we are not told whether Bishop knew of this betrayal, he nevertheless decides at that moment to remove himself from Muir and join another operation with the Agency.
Though humans are capable of tremendous evil in which operatives are willing to kill thousands of people for various reasons, the darkness of “Spy Game” requires some form of spiritual light far greater than the redemption attempted by Muir and the sacrifice he makes for Bishop.
When human life is only an “asset” that one uses in a “game” of life, then we are all in danger of becoming far less than we were created to be.