Here's a movie that's well titled, highly paced and superbly controlled. The creative team of director Tony Scott and screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner demonstrate that they know what a movie experience should be like. It's escapist in the best sense of the term. And the cast, led by two guys who can evoke sympathetic interest with seemingly little effort, adds an intriguing bit of intrigue to this year's cinematic achievements.
We meet CIA agent Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) on an "OP" (operation) in a Chinese jail at Su Chou in 1991. He's ostensibly part of a medical team brought in to inoculate the prisoners but his mission is to rescue one of them, a woman, his woman, Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack) who was delivered there by the CIA to get her out his life and out of their way. But the OP goes awry and Bishop is captured, tortured, and scheduled for termination the next morning.
The CIA could care less about this rogue agent but Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), the man who trained Bishop, cares. And the fact that he's retiring at the end of the day doesn't alter his ability to outplay his superiors at Langley headquarters. He is interrogated by the CIA command to determine his involvement in the case and, perhaps, in Bishop's mission. Muir thinks back to his history with his trainee, and selectively describes past events to satisfy the inquisitors. As he does, we see the events in flashbacks.
He became aware of Bishop in a 1975 military operation in Danang requiring a sharpshooter to take out an enemy field commander. Bishop was that shooter and got the job done even in the face of discovery, interesting Muir in his determination and abilities. As he mentors Bishop as a field agent for the CIA he confirms his suspicions that Bishop is a natural for the job, requiring so many skills and the kind of dogged determination he saw in him from the start.
As Muir's recollections go on, we become engaged in the many and varied ops with the two agents and, at the same time, get a sense of what it's like within the secretive bastions of the CIA. We see mind games, deviousness, misdirection, and outright attempts at entrapment. And, it all feels about right for a clandestine spy agency. You have to keep tabs on your operatives, where an agent can turn on a dime and become your worst nightmare.
At a point in time, Bishop, posing as a news photographer on the front lines of Beirut, hooks up with angel of mercy Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack), a lady with some questionable allies in her quest to treat the injured, sick and poor of that devastated country. But this is no idle liason of convenience to a spy; it's the real thing. And Muir, who has done a background check on the nurse is displeased with Bishop's choice in girlfriends. He arranges to have her taken out of the picture, not anticipating that this would cause a rift with Bishop. Bishop quits the agency for an outside "Op" which, of course, is the rescue of his Elizabeth.
As he describes these developments to the room full of his CIA and allied interrogators, who seem to collect more and more evidence against him, threatening his own destiny with imprisonment, Muir demonstrates how to deceive the deceivers in a series of moves that is a step ahead of his most ardent inquisitors. He hasn't been such a successful agent for so long for nothing. Using evasive phone calls, controlled pager messages, his loyal secretary Gladys Jennip (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and a variety of contacts in China itself, he virtually controls the situation, and Bishop's destiny.
What's so amazing here is how the complexity is never a factor in your understanding of the forces at work, the timeline, the dangers and the interactions. This is a fine display of screenwriting and performance, perhaps somewhat romanticized but in the best interests of entertainment.
It's also ideal material for Pitt who clearly outdoes his Irish agent in 1997's "The Devil's Own". He is surely on firmer ground, too, than his unconvincing detective of "Seven" (1995) and much more in his element than in the disastrous "Legends of the Fall and "Meet Joe Black", poor choices all. What he shows here is a disciplined forcefulness without mannerism. It's a mature outing that perhaps was influenced by its association with the steady Robert Redford. One suspects that neither actor was going to take this detail anything less than all out seriously. It shows. They are a force for charismatic chemistry. They make collaborative CIA agents as believable as their collaboration as actors in this, as complete a thriller script as there is, and with a director who know how to make it all live.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, whom we last admired so much in the 1996 oscar winning movie, "Secrets and Lies" plays the loyal secretary in a role that is a deliciously satisfying one for the audience as she so faithfully and efficiently carries out her boss' wishes. She was a great choice for this role.
But as for perceptive choices of roles, credit director Tony Scott again for so unerring a cast. Most notable are the CIA chiefs and other interrogation types as they all so well represent the sort of people, intelligent, canny, suspicious, alert, intense, that we would expect to find at such levels of espionage. There's no sell out here with cardboard cutouts, of bumblers to make Muir's deceptions easier. These are challenging characters who would make any deceptions against them difficult and Muir's accomplishments all the more admirable, rendering the agency with convincing authority.
Of course, what's really behind all the admirability is the chillingly taut, polished artistry of the screenwriter. This is the 39 year old Michael Frost Beckner whose list of work is short. His credits include "Prince Valiant" (1997), "Cutthroat Island" (1995), "Sniper" (1993) and TV's "The Agency". Tony Scott must have known something about his abilities beyond what his produced screenplays might suggest. Perhaps he read some of his unproduced scripts? In any case, we're looking for more from this pro.