‘Spy Game’ is one of the very few Tony Scott films in which the script created enough space to accommodate Scott’s trademark flashy direction as well as allowing the actors to flex their acting chops. The casting of ’70s golden boy Robert Redford worked hugely to the film’s advantage; it’s his best role in ages. Even though his character — a wise, witty and crafty senior CIA official — is called Nathan Muir, he looks more like the older version of the CIA agent he played in Sydney Pollack’s ‘Three Days of the Condor’. And Redford’s presence ensured that Brad Pitt didn’t too bad either.
Nathan is just one day away from retiring when he gets a secret phone call from one of his allies informing him of the capture by the Chinese military, of one of his former proteges named Tom Bishop, played by Pitt. How he got himself into this situation is left vague but the Chinese have accused him of espionage. The Americans want to distance themselves from this as far as they can, considering the impending trade negotiations with the Chinese as well as the presidential tour. In everyone’s books, Bishop has “gone rogue”. A meeting is immediately formed inside the CIA and Nathan is summoned to give his superiors every piece of information he can on Bishop.
The film then flashes backward to several locations around the globe — Vietnam, Berlin, Beirut — giving us a peek into Bishop’s past, including his chance encounter with Nathan during his tour in Vietnam. Nathan sees a potential recruit in Bishop and soon begins teaching him about the ways of “old school” espionage as well as the world. Both men look like father and son — Pitt looks like a younger version of Redford — even though the characters are not related by blood. The film occasionally comes back to the meeting room, where Nathan is busy trying to figure out ways to outsmart his peers and rescue Bishop. Nathan has only a few hours to think and act fast — the Chinese will be executing Bishop soon.
While there is a high amount of tension surrounding Bishop’s situation and the drama unfolding in the CIA offices, the film is most effective during the scenes where Nathan is training Bishop, taking him to cafes, train stations and lecturing him on the art of observation and what not. Some of their exchanges are really intense, given their slightly opposing ideologies. Nathan tells Bishop not to let his emotions dictate his decision-making process during an extremely volatile situation. And when it comes to women, Nathan doesn’t believe in long-term commitments. He is the kind of guy who has trained his mind not to get too close to someone. In one scene, he tells Bishop, “Don’t ever risk your life or your career for an asset. If it comes down to you or them, send flowers.”