Spy Game (2001)

Directed by Tony Scott

The most interesting aspect of Spy Game, to me, is the narrative style. It’s a good action type of movie, but it is the way the story is told that most caught my interest.

The story-telling style is dictated first by the script and secondly by the directorial decisions.

In terms of the script, the story is largely flashback. You could say the movie is about Robert Redford’s character telling the story of his association with Brad Pitt’s character.

The movie is something like 75% back story. In other words, it is largely exposition.

This creates major problems for the director, Tony Scott. How do you make exposition interesting?

The problem is dealt with in two ways by both Tony Scott and the writers, Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata. The first is to make those flashbacks, the set-up and expository parts, action oriented. In the film, there is little or no action in the Robert Redford scenes whereas the Brad Pitt scenes are largely focused on action.

The second tack they take in making the exposition interesting is to have a second storyline occurring in the Robert Redford expository scenes. While Redford is telling about his association with Pitt’s character, there are hints of conspiracy surrounding him. There is a kind of chess game going on between Redford and the CIA men questioning him. Redford plays the innocent as he tries to outwit them in order to find out what they know, and why they are questioning him. A spy game, in other words. And as we eventually discover, it is this second storyline that is the real storyline. (Actually, the two storylines intersect at the end to become one.)

To a great extent it works. But a problem does arise out of this flashback narrative style, one that is inherent in the style and which the filmmakers do their best to overcome but ultimately fail. The problem is this: the real time story, Redford and his questioners, is where the movie’s interest lies (partly by virtue of the fact that it is happening in the “now”). The Brad Pitt scenes, the action sequences, are the least interesting. You watch almost hoping they’ll end quickly so you can get back to the visually less interesting but story-wise more compelling Redford scenes because these are the scenes driven by character and mystery.

Based on the special features clips with Tony Scott, certain story elements were eliminated from the film (for various reasons) and I think some of these excisions may have been a mistake as they removed character elements from the Pitt scenes, the scenes which in the final cut are the ones that need some greater character and story depth.

One other aspect of the film which I don’t particularly like, though this may be more personal taste, is the obvious directing that occurs. By this I mean that as you watch the film you can’t help but be aware of the movie as something that has been manufactured. (This has become pretty standard in action movies today.) It is difficult to be completely lost in the story, to suspend this awareness because of choices made to make the film exciting. This relates to editing, music, camera movements (especially digitised long shot sweeps with accompanying synthesised swooshes), and light and tinting effects.

It is this last that bothers me most. I first noticed this with Saving Private Ryan. Since that film came out, I see movie after movie that manipulates light for a stark, high contrast look. And many movies, or scenes within them, tint the image a blue, a green, a yellow or some other colour, or over-saturate or de-saturate … In other words, they avoid a more traditional natural look in favour of something visually more emphatic. But it’s this extra emphasis that I find bothersome. It’s as if the directors don’t trust that the script and the actors will communicate the story so they tweak the image in order to make us understand that it is an oppressive scene, an important scene, a flashback scene and so on.

Tony Scott, in the special features, discusses this (how he created a look for about 3 or 4 locations to distinguish them) and while I can understand the intent, I find the result more of an irritating distraction than a help.

But having said all that, I did enjoy the movie. It’s a more intelligent action movie than the normal run of action films. But I think Brad Pitt got the short end of the stick in that his scenes are the least interesting. In a sense, he is wasted. Any actor could have been in this role; Pitt’s appearance really only helps in box office terms. It’s not that his performance is poor, or the character is pointless, it’s just that Pitt’s character never really develops. It’s more a prop, a vehicle for telling the central story, which is the Redford character .

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