This is not one of those movies where the spies wear elegant dinner jackets, drink martinis, use cool gadgets and have sex with gorgeous women in between huge explosions and shoot-outs. There is no hidden fortress, secret formula, or missing computer chip. Instead, it is a smart thriller for grown-ups about spies who manipulate their “assets” (sources) with brains, not explosives. And it is about loyalty, politics, and whether the ends ever justify the means.
It begins in 1991 with a failed rescue attempt at a Chinese prison. Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is awakened on his last day working for the CIA by a phone call from Hong Kong. An agent has been captured. We learn through a series of flashbacks that the agent, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) was originally recruited and trained by Muir. We trace their relationship through the world’s trouble spots from Viet Nam to Beirut as they go from teacher/student to partners and then as they cannot work together any more. Bishop, code named “Boy Scout” for his true blue values, likes being one of the good guys. He likes to keep his promises. He is willing to bend rules, but only if he has to. Nathan is not sure he knows what the rules are anymore, beyond the one he tells Tom is unbreakable – save your money so that you can retire someplace warm and never spend any of it to protect an asset.
The CIA has 24 hours before Bishop is executed. Muir spends much of that time in a taped and transcribed meeting with top officials who are more concerned about maintaining trade negotiations with China than with rescuing a spy who does not seem to have been on any authorized mission. The rest of the time, he is using everything he has accumulated in his career – his experiences, his relationships, his tricks of the trade, and even his money – to get the Boy Scout back home.
Redford and Pitt (who worked together on “A River Runs Through It”) are both marvelous, their different acting styles working well to help them portray the differences in their characters. Director Tony Scott (“Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide”) shows his usual expert touch in action stories about men who have to think quickly while they struggle with problems of loyalty and independence. The scenes in Beirut are particularly unsettling and tragic.
Parents should know that the movie has very strong language and a lot of violence, including a brutal beating. We see the victims of violence, including amputees and dead bodies. There is a mild and inexplicit sexual situation.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people develop rules when their work involves breaking traditional rules. How can you tell when you stop being one of the good guys? How do they know that the rules they are breaking are in aid of a greater good? Who was betrayed in the movie?