Tradecraft

The quality of most American movies released lately has
been so low that Spy Game stands out as a significant pleasure. This
Robert Redford-Brad Pitt vehicle is not a film for the ages--I may well have
forgotten all about it by next year--but it does its self-assigned job very
well. It is an example of good craftsmanship that is also about good
craftsmanship, and that confluence of medium and message affords its own special
kind of satisfaction.

The craft that Spy Game takes as its subject is spying, and at the
heart of the film are the sections devoted to the details of "tradecraft" (to
borrow John Le Carré's term). If you do not find such details
scintillating, you will probably be bored or mildly confused by the movie. But if
you care about the precise methods of deception and coordination and evasion and
rescue practiced by a century of fictional spies, from John Buchan's to Eric
Ambler's to Le Carré's, you will feast on the training and action
sequences director Tony Scott offers here.

The opening scene alone is gripping enough to challenge the much-touted credit
sequence of the latest James Bond film. True, we don't get people leaping from
airplanes into speedboats or bashing up well-known monuments in the pretitle
section of Spy Game; what we do get, though, is a carefully timed, nearly
wordless, elegantly planned prison rescue scene that is alive and alert with its
own tension. The scene shows us everything and tells us nothing--it presumes,
that is, that we too are alive and alert--and though we can figure out that
somebody is being rescued from a Chinese prison, we don't know who or why until
more than halfway through the movie. By allocating a tightly counted seven
minutes for the entire rescue, this opening also sets us up for the ticking-clock
feeling that will dominate the rest of the movie.

And here, of course, is one of the key points where movie craft and tradecraft
intersect: They are both measured against the clock, down to the second. Spy
Game
gives us 24 hours in the life of a retiring CIA operative, played with
consummate casualness by Robert Redford. During this, his last day at work, he
needs to save the life of a fellow agent who has gone AWOL and been captured by
the Chinese. The endangered operative is a young man he trained and cared about
and in some ways betrayed, a younger version of himself--in short, Brad Pitt.

Redford is repeatedly obstructed in this rescue attempt by the higher-ups in
his own office, particularly the marvelously slimy Stephen Dillane (who
unfortunately retains a tinge of his own British accent but is otherwise perfect
for the part) and the scarily sleepy-eyed Larry Bryggman. The CIA, it appears, is
willing to sacrifice Brad Pitt to the Chinese in order to save itself some
embarrassment. So Redford has to hide his actions from his superiors, working
around the Company's tight internal security and relying heavily on his loyal
secretary, a handful of far-flung buddies, and his own vast store of tradecraft.
These scenes of Redford's administrative derring-do (he does the whole job from
within the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia--there is manifestly not enough
time for him to fly to China) are periodically punctuated by the current hour
digitally emblazoned on the screen, reminding us that at 8:00 a.m., 24 hours
after the movie's start, Brad Pitt will be executed for espionage.

The setup is remarkably similar to the premise behind 24, Fox's new
television show, and indeed the two share a certain kind of tension (and
at
-tention). Still, the differences between them are just as instructive. The
TV show, unlike the movie, can pretty much occupy real time--and much of the
pleasure we derive from 24 is the canny way in which the creators
manipulate the minutes and seconds of their 24 hour-long episodes to tell us
their tale. The program is certainly a well-made object, and its brilliant
editing--in particular, its use of split screens--is nothing short of
revolutionary for television. But the split screens are themselves the sign of a
certain distance (if you wanted to be Brechtian about it, you might even say
"alienation effect") that only television can get away with. In movies, we need
to see the people whole, to feel them as somehow continuous with our
non-split-screen reality. Luckily, 24 doesn't aspire to this level of
psychological realism, because if it did, it would be a failure: Its characters
just aren't people we care much about. This is partly a matter of weak dialogue,
but it is also a casting problem. The actors on 24 are mostly unknown,
with good reason, and even Kiefer Sutherland, who has a name, doesn't live up to
it. You can't watch this show without wishing that Donald had been young enough
to play the role.

That wish is precisely the one answered by Spy Game, where we get not
only the father but also the idealized son--that is, Robert Redford and
Brad Pitt. Even people who have only seen the print ads for the movie have
remarked on how much the two actors resemble each other. And it's true that they
have certain features in common. But if they are such duplicates, why is it we've
never noticed this resemblance before? I think, in fact, that they are not really
so much alike; it is Spy Game itself that works to make them seem like
father and son, or even like alter egos. I found myself repeatedly mistaking one
for the other in the half-light of certain flashback scenes: that lanky frame,
that angular jaw, could have been either Redford's or Pitt's. And this confusion
serves the movie well, not only by emphasizing its themes of deception and
disguise, but also because it cements the parallel between the spy game and the
film game. In both, some kind of mantle is being handed down.

For Redford, the task set by the movie was nothing more than to act Redford;
we could do the rest, bringing to bear on this performance everything he's done
in a similar vein, from Three Days of the Condor (which truly was a
thriller for the ages) to Sneakers. But for Brad Pitt, the job was
slightly harder. He needed to present himself as an avatar of Redford (which he
did, drawing on everything from intonation to gesture) and simultaneously make a
case for his own uniqueness. He had to be Redford's offspring, Redford's younger
self, and also something new. At this he has succeeded splendidly.

We have no other actors in American film who are quite like Brad Pitt. He
calls to mind certain qualities from an earlier generation (the sweetness of
Henry Fonda, the innocence of Jimmy Stewart, the charm of Joseph Cotten),
qualities that we think of as singularly American; and yet he combines them with
something edgy, difficult, unpredictable--something hard and sharp that is also,
I guess, part of our national character. In a film of Graham Greene's Quiet
American,
he would make a great Pyle, someone who, by virtue of his own
hardened innocence, brings destruction to those around him. He played a version
of this role in Seven, and mild echoes of that performance are discernible
in Spy Game. So are suppressed aspects of his crazy-man parts in 12
Monkeys
and Fight Club (each of which stressed a very different form
of craziness).

What's here, above all, is the special chemistry he brings to his scenes with
other male actors, particularly actors older than he is. (Again, think of
Seven
and the relationship with Morgan Freeman.) The camera loves Pitt, as it
has always loved Redford; but that alone would not be enough to make us fond of
them. For us to care about them as much as we do in Spy Game--for the risk
and the threat to seem real enough--we need to believe that they care about each
other. Redford has always been a rather cold actor (it was his coldness, his
isolation, that made Three Days of the Condor so moving), but Brad Pitt
allows him to seem warm. Pitt has a rare kind of actorly generosity: the gift of
making the other man on screen seem loving and wise. He lets us feel that youth
and beauty are not the only virtues worth having, that the past had strengths the
present lacks. And yet in doing so, he makes us appreciate his present
virtues even more.

Spy Game, too, looks backward toward an earlier period and regrets the
meager present (as Redford suggests in his final wry comment to Bryggman about
"the old days" at the CIA). It is the kind of movie we made very well, once upon
a time. Perhaps we will again, someday. In the meantime, there is always good
craftsmanship.

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