The IMDb trivia section is not inherently trustworthy, it being a user-submitted (but, unlike Wikipedia, not user-edited) collection of data, but this one nugget about Spy Game seemed entirely worth sharing on the grounds that, accurate or not, it was still illustrative:
When the film was previewed in the summer of 2001, Brad Pitt said that it dealt with blow back from unsuccessful CIA operations and suggested that it might mean America had been the world's leading power for too long. However, after the 9/11 attacks, Pitt was quoted as saying the movie indicated that CIA operatives were needed "now more than ever".
Now, what we've got is fairly obviously a bit of ass-covering to protect a movie released around Thanksgiving, 2001, not by any means a good moment in history for cinema critical of the American government; given the politics of Pitt and the film's lead, Robert Redford, it seems rather likely that the pro-America rah-rah take on the film was grafted on later from a marketing standpoint. But the point here is not whether Spy Game is or is not about the glorious, nation-protecting CIA, but that its co-star would be able to voice, at different times, two entirely incompatible opinions about what the film was actually saying, which is the best indication I can imagine, other than the evidence of the film itself, that Spy Games doesn't actually have a message worth talking about.

Does that sound like a bad thing? It doesn't have to be. To begin with, it seems a little presumptuous to expect political insight of a movie with a story from Michael Frost Beckner, the scenarist of Cutthroat Island, as filtered through the directorial sensibilities of Tony Scott, who handled the aggressively apolitical Crimson Tide and the generically Reagan-era Top Gun. We're clearly headed for action thriller land, not real-world story about real-world consequences, and as far as that goes, Spy Game is an awfully snug thriller indeed, with a clever structure and a surprising amount of ticking-clock tension for a movie whose actual "plot" takes place almost entirely within a conference room. Considering its framework, showily taking place during the collapse of the Cold War, and its topic, the blowback that comes from CIA missions going off track, it feels like there could be some analytical depth to it; maybe even ought to be. There isn't. But at least it's a fun ride, capably anchored by Redford giving the spunkiest, most alive performance he gave in a decade in either direction.

The story is, unexpectedly, Citizen Kane, transposed to the realm of high-level espionage. In 1991, an operative working in East Asia, Tom Bishop (Pitt) is captured by the Chinese government while trying to break a woman out of prison. With the U.S. and China inches away from an historic trade agreement, this is the absolute worst time for a spy to be found going rogue, and the higher-ups in the CIA have gathered to decide how to deal with this meddlesome agent, with just 24 hours till the Chinese authorities execute him. This leads them to call in his former handler, Nathan Muir (Redford), a scant two days away from retirement, and getting his impression on what could possibly be going on inside Bishop's head. A huge chunk of the film's running time is devoted to Muir's recollections of his time spent with Bishop over the last 16 years, ever since Muir recruited the younger man as a sniper in the Vietnam War, giving Spy Game an unusually playful structure for such a meat-and-potatoes thriller as it seems to be from outside: the story is carried in the "present" day scenes, while the character development is expressed entirely through flashbacks, so in a sense the film is following two interrelated, complimentary, but distinct narrative spines in tandem.

Given how the film's plot develops in the 1991 scenes, and given that the primary joy of Spy Game, like many espionage thrillers, lies in watching the characters outsmart us, and not just their adversaries, it's a tremendously easy film to spoil, and I want to be sensitive about that; 12 years old it might be, but the film never had a massive audience, nor became a genre classic (which, given the parched state of the spy thriller in the last decade, seems odd that one as reasonably well-made as this would have mostly fallen off the face of the earth). So pardon me if I'm just hopelessly vague about a lot of things. I will say that the end of the film brings into focus something that was tickling me throughout the whole film, and indeed can be found scattered throughout Tony Scott's entire filmography: while it's easy to look at that man's body of work, and conclude that he makes feature-length commercials for technology and machines, praising a metallic, dehumanised way of life (the three films that strike me as "quintessential" Scott, are Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and Crimson Tide; a movie about planes, cars, and a submarine, respectively, with only the last of these about its characters to any meaningful way at all), his films also tend to hinge on male relationships. Love stories between heterosexual men, if you will, and while this is literalised and even parodied by something like the volleyball scene in Top Gun, it plays out in several of his movies in different ways: the quarrel ending in mutual respect in Crimson Tide, the slow transition from rivals to friends in Days of Thunder, the screwball romantic comedy structure of The Last Boy Scout, the Fatal Attraction-style obsession gone wrong in The Fan. Spy Game, arguably, takes this theme more overtly and literally than anything else in the director's filmography: step back far enough, and it is the story of an unmarried man whose love for another man is so profound that he will throw away everything he has so that his friend can be with the woman he loves.

I'm not, please understand, trying to argue that Spy Game is about sublimated homosexuality in the CIA. This is as entirely heterosexual as anything you could imagine; but it's ultimately a film about sacrificing for friendship, and this, more than anything, is what ties the two threads of the film together: the 1991 plot shows what and how Muir does on Bishop's behalf, the flashbacks show why - what relationship between the two developed over 16 years that the retiring spy would do so much for his agent. It falls almost entirely to Redford and Pitt to convince us of this relationship, but impressively enough, they manage to, Redford especially; he sparkles with movie star charm like nobody's business, but also finds time for quiet little reactionary beats and satisfied little emotions that dart across his face, and generally sells his character's emotions in small ways that add up over the whole course of the film without ever trumpeting themselves.

If that makes for a Spy Game that is more humanist than its screenplay would suggest possible, it is, nonetheless, a Spy Game that's not as good as it could be, largely because of its too-busy aesthetic. Not "flawed", per se - though the choice that Scott and cinematographer Dan Mindel made to shoot the Vietnam flashbacks, but only the Vietnam flashbacks in high-contrast sepia is baffling - just a bit distracting and messy. Long scenes with lots of dialogue are not really the director's forte, and that describes at least half of the movie: in order to keep things peppy and alive, he and editor Christian Wagner play around with some unfortunately choppy editing of a sort that works entirely well in the flashbacks, when the film is mostly about the on-the-ground life of spies, and a bit of chaos and visual panic is entirely worthwhile (some of the flashbacks almost prefigure, though to a much less ambitious degree, the Jason Bourne films). But when the same aesthetic is used in a boardroom, even a high-tech, shiny boardroom like the one we see here, it feels weird and desperate: did the filmmakers really think that cutting Redford's one line there into three different shots would make it more exciting? Because hell no, it didn't.

Everything's so busy that it starts to get in the way, at times, and the human core of the film is so delicate (while the social core, as mentioned, doesn't exist), that you sometimes fear that Spy Game will collapse into nothing but glossy surfaces and shallow clichΓ©s, like the ones dominating the dialogue and the exoticised musical score. But this never happens; even though it's a bit antsy where it had best not be, you can tell that Scott was pulling back and making something more grounded and stable than he easily could have, and the result is a terrifically satisfying "here are the mechanics of spying" picture, a little too sexy to be entirely serious and intellectual (it's like a John Le CarrΓ© music video, basically), but so tightly wound that even if it's a little slick, it's too engaging and tense you're watching to see any reason why slickness has to be bad, necessarily. It's as well-crafted a machine as any of the ones that Scott had fetishised throughout his career, and just as much fun to watch. Heck, it outright calls itself a spy game, after all.