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Spy Game is a thinking man’s action film, says Robert Redford, in which he plays a veteran CIA officer whose protégé, played by Brad Pitt, ignites an international incident over a woman in danger. The film looks at patriotism as a personal thing, and at how the CIA has changed.

“The CIA of 1991 and the CIA of right now are two entirely different creatures," says screenplay writer Michael Frost Beckner, "and Spy Game is not meant as any kind of primer on the agency. It's a human story about the things people have to live with for the rest of their lives."

"a thinking man's action film" Robert Redford

Beckner wanted to examine the second half of the Cold War, with a veteran officer looking back at that period as he prepares to retire, then filter it through the eyes of the young protégé. Beckner has researched and written about the CIA for many years and created the new television series, The Agency. "I also wanted to take a look at patriotism in a morally ambiguous time, and show how ultimately, patriotism is a personal thing, about doing the right thing for the right reason."

Redford found much to savour in Spy Game. "It's a thinking man's action film, that was the basic draw of the project. The job my character Nathan Muir does require almost full-time devotion. Because of the nature of the work, he constantly has to play games for the security of the country. He knows that in order to do the job well, you have to be tough, and cannot make compromises, even when there's a humane element involved. He's done the job so long and has gotten so good at it that, probably without knowing, he has given up any chance he might have had for personal relationships in favour of his commitment to his work. Ultimately, what he learns in the act of redemption is the value of the human."

With Redford involved in the project, the big question became who could bring the weight, humour and required action skills to the role of Tom 'Boy Scout' Bishop. Producer Marc Abraham hoped it would be Brad Pitt.

When Brad Pitt read the script, he immediately responded to it “and of course loved the idea of working with Bob," says Abraham.

"The story is a kind of chess game" Brad Pitt

Pitt was also intrigued by the cerebral framing of the action. "The story is a kind of chess game," he says. "A move will be made and we're not sure of the strategy behind it – it just keeps unfolding. Tony's quickness and sharpness in getting us into the next chess move is what I think will make this picture intriguing."

Pitt embraced the role of the young rookie CIA agent. "Tom Bishop is a bit of an idealist. He's a guy whose adopted dogma begins to unravel as he questions his place in the CIA and the choices of his mentor, Nathan Muir."

"Working for the CIA is living a cover," Pitt continues. "Remember, these are guys who don't make connections. It's this dichotomy that Bishop faces, the CIA lifestyle opposite a real-life connection, a conflict that he begins to question and one that pulls him in two different directions."

The fact that they had worked together as actor and director in A River Runs Through It gave their roles in Spy Game as protégé and mentor a provocative edge.

"Because I had directed Brad, there was a different relationship," Redford says. "We got pretty close on A River Runs Through It, so we were able to carry that familiarity into this film."

The on-screen chemistry between Redford and Pitt is part of the film’s appeal.

It was back in 1998 that the original script for Spy Game, written and conceived by Michael Frost Beckner, first came to the attention of producers Douglas Wick of Red Wagon Entertainment and Marc Abraham, president of Beacon Communications. A fictitious story of the relationships between two men, Spy Game is played out against the complex metamorphosis the CIA underwent from 1975 to 1991, a volatile time on many fronts around the world.

"a metaphor, a story of redemption" producer Douglas Wick

That story resonated with Wick and Abraham. "I saw Spy Game as a metaphor, a story of redemption, about a character who finds this young man, who is some ways is the mirror of himself, and whom he gradually begins to mould into a top CIA contract agent," said Wick.

"The script was very stirring," Abraham agreed. "The way it explored history through the CIA's efforts in Vietnam, Berlin and Beirut gave it an epic quality. Spy Game is an ironic title in that it's actually about life and death. The themes of friendship and the pain and disillusionment that come with the falling apart of that friendship are enormously poignant and powerful."

The script also promised challenging action sequences set in exotic locales, a strong lure for Tony Scott who has directed such landmark action thrillers as Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Days of Thunder and Enemy of the State.

"It's a wild ride," Scott says. "The story opens in China, then goes to Vietnam where the heroes first meet, then on to Berlin where Muir trained Bishop, then to Beirut at the peak of a conflict. We detail a 16 year span of American history much of it in flashback. We've got spectacular locations, shocking cuts between the present and the past, fascinating characters and an incredible cast. It's a huge character jigsaw puzzle and a smorgasbord of colours and emotions and places and sounds – you can smell all these different environments."

From as early as 1998, Robert Redford was attached to the project, showing instant interest in the script and the character of Nathan Muir. This was a tremendous casting coup for the producers. "When Bob said he was interested and eventually that he would do the movie," said Abraham, "we knew we were onto something great. I think historically one of the finest spy films ever made was Three Days of the Condor, and Bob brought so much authenticity and charisma to that role. I knew we'd love to see him in something like this.”

"two things that Robert Redford does better than almost any other actor" Douglas Wick

Redford offered other distinctive strengths, as well. "There are two things that Robert Redford does better than almost any other actor," said Wick. "One of them is friendship, and a huge part of this movie is about the friendship between his character and Brad Pitt's character. The second thing is that Robert Redford is one of those actors who always looks like he has a secret. Whenever you see him, you think maybe he's up to something. So the idea of him walking around the CIA with all the other people one step behind, not quite as good as he is and wondering what he is up to, became incredibly intriguing. I think with Spy Game, people are going to see Robert Redford at his full potential in a way we've never seen him before."

With the dream team of Redford and Pitt in place, the filmmakers next had to cast the character of Elizabeth Hadley, an aid working based in Beirut who threatens the friendship and the professional reputation that Muir and Bishop had built.

"It was a difficult choice," said Scott. "You have to believe in the character, that she actually does the job she does, which is running a refugee camp in Beirut. You also have to believe in the sexual and emotional attraction between her character and Brad's character. Few actors have that ability. Catherine McCormack is very believable, very real and very beautiful."

McCormack was delighted to be in such good company: "I adore Tony. He's so focussed and very good at creating the right atmosphere on-set."

"amazing" actress Catherine McCormack

Redford and Pitt also inspired the actress. "Brad was very keen to make the relationship of our two characters as real as possible, so that it would make sense that he would actually risk his life for me," McCormack explained. "I've been a long-time fan of Bob's – he's someone I have revered. To get to work with both of them was amazing."

Published January 17, 2002

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