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Film / Spy Game

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It's amazing how they didn't age a day in sixteen years.

"Don't ever risk your life for an asset. If it comes down to you or them... send flowers."
Nathan Muir

Spy Game is a 2001 American spy film directed by Tony Scott and starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.

CIA operative Nathan Muir (Redford) is on the brink of retirement when he finds out that his protege Tom Bishop (Pitt), who he hasn't seen in six years, has been arrested in China for espionage. After learning that the agency has no intention of rescuing Bishop themselves, and with only twenty-four hours on the clock until Bishop is scheduled to be executed, Muir utilizes all of his skills, resources, and irreverent manner to find a way to rescue his friend in time. In the process, he also has to contend with the bureaucracy of the CIA's top echelon, as he's called before a committee to tell them what he knows about the younger agent, leading Muir to recall how he recruited and trained Bishop — from their first meeting in Vietnam, through their turbulent days together as operatives, and finally to the woman who threatened their friendship.

Spy Game contains examples of:

  • Ambiguously Bi: During training, Bishop is instructed to get a piece of information from a random woman on the street, and he chooses to ask where she got the dress she's wearing. Afterward, Muir criticizes his technique by pointing out, "What did you tell her? One, you're straight. Two, you're engaged. Three, tomorrow's your girl's birthday. Four, you have no taste in women's fashion. What if she were an asset? You told her four lies that now have to be true." If we take Muir's statements at face value (in the context of spies presenting stories about who they're supposedly, even true aspects about the person are lies that must be maintained for appearances, i.e., the crafted backstory has to maintain every single piece of information given) and note that Bishop's love interest is a woman, we're left with one conclusion.
  • Anti-Hero: Muir comes across as one for large sections of the movie, due to his Cold War actions, although he redeems himself in the end.
  • Arc Words: "Dinner Out."
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The prison guards in Suzhou speak Cantonese, whereas they should speak Mandarin Chinese, the official language of China (or possibly Wu Chinese, which is the local language in Suzhou).
    • A similar phenomenon is the Chinese script in the jail, which would be Simplified Chinese characters on the mainland, but which are rendered in Traditional Chinese in the movie (the version of the script that is more common in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau).
  • The Atoner:
    • The whole reason that Muir decides to orchestrate Bishop and Hadley's rescue; all the years of being a Manipulative Bastard finally caught up to him and he decides to make it up to his former protege.
    • Bishop as well; he decides to rescue Hadley from prison, which ends in his capture, since she ended up there because he got involved with her.
  • Badass in Distress: Bishop definitely qualifies after he gets captured. His method of infiltrating the Chinese prison involves electrocuting himself with enough voltage to get himself declared dead. The Vietnam flashback also has him successfully sniping his target despite his position being compromised, shooting down a helicopter, and then half-carrying his injured spotter out alive.
    Muir: "Hell of an ad for the Boy Scouts."
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Seems to be a favorite tactic of Muir's, as he uses this several times in order to manipulate people into giving him otherwise-restricted information.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins with Bishop being captured at a Chinese prison and Muir rushing to the CIA headquarters. It ends with Bishop being rescued from the prison, and Muir leaving Langley for the last time.
  • Boom, Headshot!:
    • There's a quick scene where this happens to Bishop, but it was All Just a Dream.
    • The flashback where Bishop kills a North Vietnamese official, Bishop gets off 3 shots: first misses, second hits the official in the left shoulder, the third hits the official in the head.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Muir convinces a guy to give him some information by claiming that if he goes to the Operations Center to get it, Billy Niles is going to try and collect the $100 Muir owes him. When he goes to the Operations Center later, he spots Billy and asks if he has the $100 that he owes him, followed by a shot of Billy looking very confused.
    • Muir also "borrows" a co-worker's ID badge and uses it several times to gain access to restricted information. His co-worker is later seen trying to sign out at the end of the day, only to realize that he doesn't have his ID.
  • Broken Pedestal: Bishop parts ways with Muir after the Beirut mission, claiming that he doesn't want to end up like him.
  • California Doubling: There's an in-universe example with satellite imagery of the Bahamas being substituted for satellite scans of the island where the Chinese prison is located.
  • Call-Forward:
    • The stick of gum that Bishop offers a prisoner in the first scene, later revealed to be a trick he learned from Muir.
    • The flask in Muir's office, which was a birthday gift from Bishop years earlier.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Bishop takes Muir out for breakfast at a Mexican restaurant... in war-torn Beirut.
    Muir (hiding behind rubble to avoid gunfire): "This better be the best damn breakfast I've ever had."
    Bishop: "Oh, it's delicious; you'll love it."
  • Chekhov's Gun: The certificate signed by the director of the CIA, which Muir later uses to forge his signature.
  • Code Name: Bishop is referred to as "Boy Scout" during a conversation on an unsecured phone line.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Bishop is subjected to this after his capture. It's not pretty.
  • Cold Sniper: Bishop, before becoming a CIA Agent.
  • Color Wash: The film uses different filters for each flashback segment. Vietnam is orange as hell, Berlin is kind of a cool blue, and Beirut is sort of a sandy yellow. This serves to easily delineate between the flashbacks and the central hub of the story.
  • Confess to a Lesser Crime: Muir spends most of the film using CIA resources to plan an unauthorized operation to rescue Bishop. When the CIA discovers he's been accessing satellite data, Muir admits to misusing agency resources... to research retirement properties. While a huge offense in and of itself, it's not considered as big a deal because he's retiring, the satellites were passing over the Bahamas anyway (so he didn't re-stage a satellite), and quite frankly, they're just glad to be rid of him and Bishop.
  • Cool Car: Muir's 1960s Porsche 912.
  • Cool Shades: Muir dons a pair as he leaves Langley for the last time.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bishop and Muir both have their moments.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Muir has one forged and left behind for Bishop to find after he gives Hadley up to the Chinese.
  • Defector from Decadence: Both Bishop and Muir.
  • Determinator: Bishop on several occasions. Examples include continuing on his mission to snipe the NVA official despite his spotter insisting there's no shot, initial resistance to Muir over aborting his attempted smuggling of someone into West Berlin, and racing to get the doctor to his appointment in Beirut because he hated the backup plan of using local militias and explosives.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: How Muir (through his contact) gets the Chinese official to come down on his price to where Muir can personally pay him - the official is trying to watch Pamela Anderson and the contact gets in his way.
  • Double Take: One of the wardens in the Chinese prison, when he finds a prisoner chewing bubblegum.
  • Flashback Effect: There's a different one for each time period: the Vietnam flashbacks are sepia toned and heavily contrasted, the Cold War flashbacks in Germany are blue toned with less contrast, while the coloring in the Beirut flashbacks is closer to the present day scenes, though a bit brighter. Bishop's hairstyle and Muir's glasses also change in each one, to reflect the different time periods.
  • Foreshadowing: Muir's first scene shows him being woken up by a phone call at home, alone, an early hint that his "wife" doesn't exist.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Muir, arguably. He was never really a villain, but did several questionable things while working for the CIA. He makes up for it while orchestrating Bishop's rescue.
  • Heroic BSoD: Bishop seems to be going through one immediately after the bombing in Beirut. He went through another minor one earlier in the film, accompanied with a Thousand-Yard Stare, after being forced to abandon the contact he was trying to smuggle out of East Germany.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Muir uses his entire life savings to bribe a Chinese official as part of his plan to rescue Bishop.
  • Hypocrite: Hadley calls Bishop out on accusing her of playing him by demanding to know his real name; his subsequent lie is not convincing.
  • Inevitably Broken Rule: When Muir recruits Bishop as a CIA agent, he tells him there are two rules: "Put away some money so you can die someplace warm and don't ever touch it. Not for anyone, ever." and "Don't ever risk your life for an asset." Bishop breaks the second rule first in Berlin, when he tries to save a defector from East Germany. Then he risks his life to break Hadley out of a Chinese prison. Muir breaks the first rule when he uses all his money to bribe a Chinese official to save Bishop and Hadley.
  • Knight Templar: Muir.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The mole, Ann Cathcart, was found beaten to death two months after defecting to the Russians. It is heavily implied Bishop and/or Muir were involved, but the movie ultimately leaves it ambiguous.
  • Love Interest: Hadley for Bishop, and a reasonably well developed one at that.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Muir. Bishop as well, after his training, but nowhere near the same extent as Muir.
  • Mission Control: Muir mostly serves this role on the missions we see him take part in.
  • Mr. Exposition: In-Universe example; Muir arranges things so he can play this role for the CIA suits by hiding or destroying all of his files on Bishop and leaving them no other option than to call him in to tell them what he knows.
  • Mundane Solution: Muir claims that although technology is always evolving, the best intelligence is better obtained through mundane mediums and simple hard work. He proves this by using the technological bureaucracy of the CIA against itself.
    "Technology gets better everyday. That's fine. But most of the time all you need is a stick of gum, a pocket knife, and a smile."
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Muir, initially.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: The reason why Muir decides to save Bishop, in spite of his insistence that he wouldn't help if Bishop went off the reservation, and the ease with which he was previously willing to play with other people's lives and discard them when they were of no use anymore.
  • Not a Game: Inverted. Bishop says this in response to one of Muir's controversial calls (telling Bishop to abandon an informant to certain death), and Muir retorts that a game is exactly what it is, and a very serious one at that.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Muir's contact in China gets annoyed when Muir tries to bargain down the bribe they have to pay the power company guys and snaps, "What do you care? It's not your money!" Muir just cringes, as he's actually using his retirement fund to pay the bribe.
  • Oh, Crap!: For the CIA, the penultimate line of the movie when Muir's interrogators have their previously-assuaged suspicions of Muir's duplicity confirmed too late via phone call after Muir had left the building.
    "There's been an incident in China."
  • Once More, with Clarity: The brief flashback of a woman being forced into a van is later shown to be Hadley, and the scene where Bishop is dragged from his cell is later revealed to take place during his rescue.
  • Operation: [Blank]: Operation Dinner Out. Initially the project Bishop set up to get the stuff they need in place for his and Muir's op in Beirut, it becomes repurposed for the rescue of Bishop in the present day.
  • Properly Paranoid: Muir, in spades.
    "When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain."
  • Publicly Discussing the Secret: During the Training Montage, Muir and Bishop are shown discussing spy techniques on public streets, inside full restaurants, and in front of bartenders. A bit justified though, considering that they're in a foreign country and not everyone around them speaks fluent English, which makes it slightly less risky (however, as spies, they of all people should be aware that just because not everyone speaks English doesn't mean nobody does, and they should be a lot more careful than they are).
  • Public Secret Message: Muir calls the plan to rescue Bishop "Dinner Out", allowing him to mention it over the phone without any of the suits in the room knowing what he's referring to.note  Later, when Bishop overhears the code name, he recognizes it as Muir's.
  • Race Against the Clock: Muir only has twenty-four hours to arrange a rescue, or Bishop will be executed.
  • Ransacked Room: Harker has security officers search Muir's office while Muir is busy being interrogated. His secretary alerts Muir to what is happening, and he excuses himself to go get something from his office, deliberately letting the suits know that he knows what they've been doing.
  • Rebuilt Pedestal: Possibly implied with the ending.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Bishop is the red to Muir's blue.
  • Retirony: The events of the film are dumped on Muir literally the day before his retirement.
  • Revealing Reflection: Muir and Bishop are at a restaurant doing situational awareness training when Muir asks whether the suited man just inside the kitchen is a threat. Muir's back is to the kitchen door and he never turns around to see, so Bishop is confused as to how Muir knew he was there until Muir taps on the polished serving tray cover on the table between them that's reflecting the suit's image to Muir.
  • Rogue Agent: Bishop gets classified as such and hung out to dry by the agency after he gets captured trying to rescue his girlfriend on an unauthorized mission.
  • Running Gag: The many wives of Muir. Is actually a plot point - Muir's interrogators realize too late he isn't currently married, and all his previous "wives" were actually agents he recruited.
  • Sherlock Scan: Muir at times employs this method to figure out what the CIA suits don't want him to know, like when he figures out the name of the op by spotting a reflection from Harker's notepad on the tabletop.
    "You know this would go a lot faster you guys if you would tell me a little something about the op. What's it called? SIDESHOW?"
    [They all glance at him in surprise]
  • Shirtless Scene: Bishop gets a couple, courtesy of Brad Pitt.
  • Shown Their Work: The scene where Muir gives Bishop five minutes to charm his way into a nearby apartment building is based on a real life test used in training Mossad agents.
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: Muir to Bishop.
    Muir (points to a nearby apartment building): "Know anyone who lives there?"
    Bishop: "No."
    Muir: "Within five minutes I want to see you standing on one of those balconies."
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Bishop, compared to the other characters; he delivers the majority of the "F" bombs in the film.
  • Smug Snake: Harker, which makes the ending all the more satisfying.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The loud classical music playing over Bishop's attempt to bring an East German defector across the wall.
  • The Spook: Muir doesn't share his personal information with anyone, to the extent that his own co-workers don't find out until too late that he's not currently married, and in fact has only been married once (which is an important plot point). Troy Fogler - who came up together with Muir - admits to Harker in an early scene that no one really knows him, while Bishop remarks in a flashback that Langley has seven different incorrect birth-dates on file for him, and the KGB and Mossad apparently have several more.
  • Spy Fiction: Of the Stale Beer variety.
    Bishop: I thought spies drank martinis.
    Muir: Scotch, and never less than 12 years old.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Bishop throws a chair off a roof during an argument with Muir.
  • Training Montage: Of Bishop's early days as a CIA agent.
    Muir: "Every building, every room, every situation, it's a snapshot. I'm sitting here talking to you, I'm also checking the room. Memorizing it; the people, what they're wearing. Then I ask the question, 'What's wrong with this picture? Anything suspect?'. You've got to see it, assess it, then dismiss most of it without looking, without thinking."
    Bishop: "Without thinking?"
    Muir: "It's just like breathing. You breathe, don't you?"
  • Twofer Token Minority: Muir's secretary, Gladys, is black and female.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Since all of the flashbacks are told by Muir, one cannot help but wonder how much of them is true, and how much is changed/added/omitted to manipulate the other men in the room.
  • Unusual Dysphemism: Muir gives us this:
    " was our one and only opportunity to take him out. I didn't have the usual time to butter him up, which means we needed twice the sex with half the foreplay."
  • Vehicular Kidnapping: There's a clip no more than a few seconds long showing Elizabeth as the victim of one of these by the Chinese, who want her for bombing their embassy in the UK. It comes as Muir explains to his superiors it was he who sold her out to them, ostensibly in exchange for the release of an American agent but also to remove her as a distraction from his protege Bishop. Her capture prompts Bishop to go after her, resulting in his own capture and setting off the present-day plot of the movie with the CIA calling Muir (ostensibly) for advice.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Bishop, who is pretending to be drunk, ducks into a bathroom and ingests some liquid from a vial that causes him to immediately retch into the nearest toilet, right as one of his pursuers walks in to see what he's doing.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Implied and lampshaded by Bishop in the debriefing scene at the airport after using their backup plan to assassinate their target in Beirut (and getting the doctor, whom they had spent so much time and effort to convince to betray his patient, dead in the process).
    Bishop: We got a fucked-up barometer for success, don't we?
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Muir is a somewhat rare anti-heroic example, justifying his actions as being necessary to protect democracy. It's left ambiguous whether he actually is justified or not.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of the two Chinese doctors who assisted Bishop in the initial jailbreak is never mentioned. They're last seen after Bishop is discovered, being surrounded by guards with guns, and they aren't included in the rescue at the end.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Bishop calls Muir out several times on how casual he is at manipulating the lives of others, not even batting an eye if those manipulated lose their lives - all for the greater good of the USA.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Muir manages to stall the CIA, bribe Chinese officers and set up a successful rescue mission using the US Navy, using only a phone, an electric typewriter, a fax machine and various other office supplies.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Muir sacrifices a low-level informant to lure out an American double-agent. Of course, Muir also claims the informant was a double-agent for the Russians who was planning to betray Bishop, so it was ok to get rid of him. Given his status as an Unreliable Narrator and a Manipulative Bastard, it's unclear if Muir was telling the truth or just trying to get Bishop to calm down.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: Happens to Muir. He leaks the fact that Bishop is in a Chinese prison on the eve of US-China trade talks to CNN to try to force them to negotiate for his release, but as he's about to leave Langley for the last time CNN issues a retraction by stating Bishop had been dead for over a year. Muir's higher-ups presumably leaned on them in order to allow Bishop to die in prison without public backlash.