For this month's Genre Grandeur on Spy/Espionage movies I have chosen Spy Game. Directed by Tony Scott and starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, this is a gritty, more realistic spy movie. It's the polar opposite of a James Bond movie. There's no glamour, no gadgets and the type of locations that would make Jason Bourne think twice!
It's 1991, the US and China are working on a trade deal and CIA Agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has just been caught trying to break someone out of a Chinese Prison. The US Government has just 24 hours to claim him before he is executed. In order to get a handle on the situation, CIA executives bring in Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), Bishop's former boss and mentor to provide deep background on him. But Muir soon realises that the executives are looking for a pretext to justify leaving Bishop to the Chinese. Now he must he call in every asset he has and every favour he's owed in order to save Bishop's life.
After a tense opening, the story plays out in flashbacks as Muir provides highlights of his work with Bishop in Vietnam, Germany and Lebanon. Redford - who described Spy Game as "a thinking man's action film" - is perfect as the veteran intelligence agent, he and Pitt work well together. Pitt is also on top form as the talented yet arrogant agent who sometimes struggles with the morality of their work. Despite being about rescuing Bishop, the major focus of the story is on Redford's character. It's great fun watching Muir use every trick he knows to keep the executives on the hook while he covertly does everything he can to save Bishop. Tony Scott described the conference room scenes as like a "poker game", calling them the "most challenging part of the shoot".
Filming of the Vietnam and Lebanon scenes took place in Morocco, the Lebanon scenes were to be filmed in Israel but this was changed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated in 2000. Budapest acted as the stand-in for Berlin, while other locations - bar some establishing shots - were all filmed in and around London. A lot of work was done to recreate these periods in history and to differentiate between them. Such as heightening the colours in the Lebanon segment, this was done so the footage would resemble 1980's news clips whereas the colours were de-saturated to achieve a "strange sepia green" look for the Vietnam segment. I find it strange that despite all this work on the look of a movie set over a 16-year period, the filmmakers forgot to age the characters. In fact the only thing that does seem to change is Pitt's hair, which he described as looking like a "Don Johnson mullet".
Setting the story during the cold war - and in places the US are known to have been active - helps to ground the story in reality. As I said this is far from the world of James Bond. In reality, most of us know very little about what those in the intelligence services do, according to Redford's character "most of the time all you need is a stick of gum, a pocket knife and a smile." But I'd say most of what happens in Spy Game is believable, and I think this is what makes it so appealing. It's a glimpse into a world we will never know...apart from what the history books tell us anyway.
Spy Game is a tense and engaging espionage thriller from start to finish. Tony Scott cleverly uses a fast paced plot throughout in order to maintain the tension. That and shots of Bishop in peril injected into certain scenes only help to remind us of the pressure Muir is under to save him. If you like spy movies, are looking for something a bit different to James Bond, or just like movies that have a gritty and realistic feel, you can't go far wrong with Spy Game.
Don't forget to check out the other reviews in this month's Genre Grandeur. I have also submitted reviews for Allied and Our Kind of Traitor.
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