Nathan Muir, the main character of the 2001 movie, Spy Game, portrays several of the characteristics that define a hero, among them: bravery, conviction, determination, and moral integrity. Set in 1991 on the day he is scheduled to retire from the CIA, he receives an urgent early morning call from a member of the US embassy staff in Hong Kong who notifies him that one of his former operatives and protege,Tom Bishop, (aka Boy Scout) has been arrested in a Chinese prison during a failed attempt to free a former asset, Bishop’s love interest. Tom appears to have “gone rogue,” as he is not working under the auspices of the CIA. Nathan’s first response to this news appears indifferent: “He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.” Yet this report sets Nathan on an action plan that directly contradicts his initial posture.
The moment he reaches his office, he pulls Tom’s classified file and directs his assistant to hide it. For he knows that the contents of his office are subject to search for any information that will allow the Agency to disavow involvement in the failed rescue attempt and avoid political fallout by risking damage to the next week’s trade talks when the President visits China. The Chinese have classified Tom as a “common criminal,” and plan to execute him in 24 hours. The CIA management has called a task force to weigh the options: disrupt the trade talks or disavow Bishop and sacrifice him to save trade. Muir insinuates himself into the highly classified meeting by asserting that although his files on Bishop seem to be missing, he has the information the investigators need “all in his head.” By participating in the meeting, he can ascertain the Agency’s intentions.
Nathan’s narrative details his meeting Tom in Vietnam, Tom’s later recruitment and training in Germany, as well as a critical operation in Beirut. The scenes shift from the meeting room to flashbacks that reveal several phases of Bishop’s training and later assignments. Nathan, the experienced career operative, trains Tom in the spy trade-craft, especially his relationship with his assets, cautioning him to remain emotionally unattached.
Subsequently, during their operation in Beirut, Nathan witnesses Tom’s cozy encounter with Elizabeth Hadley, a British aid worker in Beirut. He admonishes him about his interaction with her. Although Tom claims that he’s only using her to gain access to the refugee camp, Nathan suspects otherwise. Nathan tells Tom that he should have “done his homework.” If he had done so, he would have known that she is not welcome home because she is a fanatic who was involved in a bombing that killed the Chinese premier’s nephew. Soon thereafter, Tom goes to her apartment to discover that she has unexpectedly disappeared, leaving only a note behind. We learn later that Nathan handed her over to the Chinese in exchange for a US diplomat who was charged with espionage.
Throughout their relationship, Nathan exhorts Tom to follow his three personal principles.
First and foremost: 1)“Don’t risk your life or career for an asset.
2)Save your money to die in a warm place.
3) Never touch it for anyone-ever.”
He warns Tom that if he “goes off the reservation”(breaks any of Nathan’s edicts), he won’t save him.
Now, on the day of Tom’s retirement, he abandons each one of those rules. He didn’t know the depth of feeling that Tom had for Elizabeth. And Nathan feels responsible for Tom. He uses every trick of his trade to orchestrate a daring prison break in China to free both Tom and his girlfriend, among them theft, deceit, forgery, and bribery. He acts altruistically by liquidating his life savings and uses the money to bribe Chinese utility officials to cut the power to the Su Chou prison during the scheduled time of his orchestrated, falsely agency-sanctioned military rescue. The plan succeeds. Nathan Muir is single-handedly responsible for it.
Once Nathan receives confirmation of the rescue, he races away from CIA headquarters at Langley. He has nothing to show for all of his years at the agency: no family, no friends, no retirement plan, no savings. And he may be a CIA target for the rest of this life. His actions are truly altruistic and heroic.
Laura I. Maniglia
Laura Impelluso Maniglia, lifelong educator and owner of Handle Education, LLC is the grand-daughter of Southern Italian & Sicilian immigrants who valued family above all else. She was born and raised in city housing (NYCHA) in the South Bronx, an ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood. Her father was a firefighter in the FDNY, her mother a home-maker. The principles instilled in her included devotion to family and a strong work ethic. She internalized these values and was fortunate enough to receive scholarships for her full time undergraduate (BA, summa cum laude)) and graduate (MA) degrees, while also working part-time.