Wed March 17, 2004
"Spartan" may be the best spy movie ever made by a practicing playwright/director.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"Spartan" may be the best spy movie ever made by a practicing playwright/director. Director and frequent screen writer David Mamet ("House of Games," "State and Main," "Spanish Prisoner," "Heist,") has crafted a thriller peppered with his stylized, epigrammatic dialogue that takes on the presidency and world corruption in equal parts of vitriol and savvy. The Pulitzer Prize winner of "Glengarry Glen Ross" shows he can keep suspense without sacrificing intelligence.
When special ops officer Scott (Val Kilmer, "Wonderland") describes himself as no "planner. I ain't a thinker. I never wanted to be," I knew I was in Mamet territory, where the speeches are street-poetic, terse, and redolent of subtext. Scott eventually has to be more than just an obedient Spartan, as he moves to the conscientious soldier who begins to see much more than just the kidnapping of the president's daughter.
Mamet lets us see that this plot is much more than a potboiler about the lost daughter of a lascivious, ruthless president's, for it comments on the hidden forces behind the electoral process. Typical of Mamet, there is much more than what the eye thinks it sees. In fact, I must remind myself to have students write essays about appearance and reality in Mamet's films.
Kilmer is once more a surprise-- he is one of our most under rated film actors. When he played an FBI agent in "Thunderheart," I was impressed by at his low-key interpretation of a Native American in hiding. I am slowly becoming a fan by shedding my feelings that after successfully playing Jimmy Hendrix, he could never successfully play anyone. As Scott he too must shed his old ways from being a "worker bee" to being an operative affecting world politics by following his instincts rather than his orders.
Some might claim Mamet loads his dramatic dice with contrived plot twists. I claim he develops his characters with such precision and care that his plots exemplify "distributed exposition," where each turn is another piece of the character puzzle Mamet invites us to play.
Denys Arcand must be credited for bathing me in languid prose in "Barbarian Invasion." David Mamet must be credited for reinvigorating me with muscular prose. Both writers outstrip David Koepp's lame attempt to reveal a writer in heat in "Secret Window," starring Johnny Depp as a Stephen King surrogate.
The title "Spartan" has several possible meanings, including the Battle of Thermopylae allusion in the film. However, the one I like best is the reference to Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, who said, "Those who are trained and disciplined in the proper discipline can determine what will best serve the occasion." Mamet best serves this occasion with a superior thriller about a man of discipline serving his country in spite of itself.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.