After a distinguished career with the Central Intelligence Agency, Nathan Muir is just one day away from retirement when he receives word that Tom Bishop, a long-time protégé, has been captured trying to rescue someone from a Chinese prison. Accused of espionage, Tom is scheduled to be executed in 24 hours. The CIA, due to political ramifications, has no intention of stepping in. The big question is, will Nathan resist the temptation to intervene on his own? Years earlier, the teacher had cautioned his pupil to stay on task, warning Tom, "If you go off the reservation, I will not come after you." He also taught Tom to put aside personal feelings and get the job done. He advocated sacrificing individuals for the greater good. It was Nathan who said operatives should never question instructions. We learn this from various memories of field work (portrayed in detailed flashbacks) that Nathan shares with colleagues after being dragged into a high-level meeting about the international incident.
Even so, something suggests that this case is different for the CIA vet. The details and back-story are kind of fuzzy for those of us sitting in the dark eating popcorn—not quite in range to be seen with clear focus. Who was Tom trying to free? Exactly what would inspire our government to sacrifice one of its own operatives? What caused an apparent rift between the two agents? Details unfold slowly and deliberately, not offering the audience any more information than necessary to connect with what’s happening onscreen at any given time. Yet there are hints of things to come. It’s an effective storytelling technique that helps to make Spy Game an intelligent thriller sure to be mentioned at Oscar time. [Spoiler Warning: The following content analysis necessitates alluding to some of the movie’s revelations.]
positive elements: Aid workers put themselves in harm’s way to provide medical attention to victims of war. Tom risks his own life to fulfill an order in Vietnam, then assists his wounded partner until they are picked up by an Allied chopper. Despite what Nathan says, Tom doesn’t feel right about leaving his "assets" (people naïvely used by agents in order to acquire information or accomplish the mission) hung out to dry. When a German man who trusted Tom gets trapped and murdered by authorities, Tom angrily confronts Nathan, arguing, "You don’t trade these people like baseball cards. We killed the man. We used him and we killed him." In fact, he’s so conflicted over years of such behavior that he eventually walks away from the whole game. A medical doctor recruited to help assassinate a despotic leader asks Tom, "Tell me, is it hard to take a life?" To which Tom—a successful sniper in Vietnam—admits, "Yeah." This sense of humanity and decency makes us care about Tom’s eventual fate. We also learn that his failed rescue attempt at the Chinese prison was motivated by sacrificial romantic love and the desire to right a wrong. Nathan, on the other hand, is sympathetic because we sense his genuine affection for Tom and regret over some professional decisions he has made. This incident is his shot at redemption. He may only have one day left with the CIA, but by putting his friend’s life ahead of "the system" at great personal cost, it will in some sense liberate him from a career of amoral deception and exploitation.
spiritual content: None except for a passing reference to Noah’s ark.
sexual content: Tom and Elizabeth are shown waking up together on two occasions, implying a sexual relationship outside of marriage. A Chinese businessman sits transfixed by the opening sequence of TV’s Baywatch (viewers see women in immodest swimwear). Still, the filmmakers display no nudity or sexual activity of any kind.
violent content: Lots of tension and conflict, but except for a quick dream sequence in which Nathan sees Tom shot in the head at close range (not overly graphic), the violence is quite restrained for an R-rated film. War-torn Vietnam (1975) and Beirut (1985) serve as backdrops in Tom and Nathan’s history together. With those settings come indiscriminate strafings of machine-gun fire and many wounded people. Lots of guns and hostile posturing. A suicide bomber drives a truck into a building, blowing up half a city block (just before it hits, the driver is shot through the windshield). Tom assassinates a Viet Cong leader with well-placed sniper fire, then cripples an enemy helicopter which proceeds to crash and burn. The Chinese torture Tom, beating him to within an inch of his life and leaving his face a bloodied mess. CIA officials refer to a woman having been beaten to death. To gain a doctor’s cooperation in assassinating an evil leader, Nathan produces photos of the man’s murdered parents (done in with carbon monoxide). The bloody aftermath of a street war is spread throughout a triage unit.
crude or profane language: Approximately 40 profanities, including 15 f-words and about 10 misuses of Jesus’ name.
drug and alcohol content: Nathan is partial to Scotch, and is seen drinking it on several occasions. A couple shares wine with a meal. Tom ingests a white powder in order to make himself vomit. He takes pills just before intentionally electrocuting himself as part of a scam, and is revived with an injection of a drug. A number of characters smoke cigarettes.
other negative elements: Noble ends frequently justify immoral means (murder, theft, lies, forgery, etc.).
conclusion: There’s a lot to like about this engagingly written, visually arresting thriller. It neither confuses, nor condescends. Audiences are transported to convincing foreign settings. An unpredictable cat-and-mouse game between Nathan and his peers kept me guessing. Flawed, yet sympathetic heroes made me care about their fates—and the fate of their friendship (Pitt and Redford share terrific chemistry). Challenging moral dilemmas will give mature viewers plenty to mull over after the lights come up. The film also benefits from a delicate emotional ebb and flow, and when Scott ratchets up the tension, he does so with just the right amount of torque. The war violence will push some families away, but the real problem here is profanity. Had they taken the language down a notch, Spy Game would have been a worthwhile flick for mature viewers willing to analyze its weighty themes from a biblical perspective.