The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Off the Reservation: David Mamet’s Spartan

Written by: Danger Mouse, special to CC2k

A working soldier and former Army officer takes a hard look at David Mamet's black ops thriller

ImageSpartan, David Mamet’s foray into the realm of clandestine operations, is exceptional – and it truly captures the byzantine intricacies of military and covert operations, despite its occasional missteps and despite Mamet's staccato-to-a-fault dialogue. It's easy to overlook those flaws when you find yourself literally shaking with excitement while watching a movie.

First, the man did his homework (well, he read the Cliff’s Notes). Of course he had a technical advisor – and one can only imagine what that fellow’s background must be (CIA? Delta Force? Something spookier?).

Before tackling the problems with the film, let me start by saying how much I enjoyed it. First, this movie doesn’t talk down to its audience. Example: Val Kilmer’s special operative character gets pulled off a base and flown by helicopter to Boston to handle a crisis: the daughter of a high-ranking government official (presumably the president’s) has been kidnapped. Here’s the twist, though: the movie shows him climbing onto the helicopter and then cuts directly to him in the middle of the investigation in Boston. A thousand other, lesser writer/directors in a thousand other, lesser movies would have shown us the scene inside the helicopter and explained exactly who was who and what was happening. Mamet does no such thing, content to trust his audience to be drawn in by the fascinating details of covert prodecure.

It’s in this first, electric scene in the locker room where Mamet distinguishes himself from exposition-heavy works like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Behaviors, not dialogue, clearly explain everyone’s role, and Mamet challenges his audience to find their inner field agent and absorb all the clues he doles out, because no one in this movie has time for introductions – they’re responding to a crisis.

More goodness: Val Kilmer gets to act his ass off in this one, effortlessly shifting from one field-required acting role to the next. In one scene, he’s a tough-but-sensitive campus cop; in the next he’s a creepy private dick trolling the capital’s underbelly.

Spartan also shows us the use of brutal force with refreshing clarity. In the context of our effeminate, legalistic, indecisive and emasculated society, Spartan shows us the force of will, the clarity of irrevocable decisions, and the grim reality of the business at hand with unswerving skill and grim beauty. Kilmer’s character would kill anyone and inflict any required amount of damage without hesitation to obtain his objective. We’re watching an artist, a manager of violence, at work. The command group really captured the ballsy trust in their subordinates that most soldiers can only dream of. Scott being asked to go off the reservation for the good of the girl, to do things the government could never publicly admit to condoning was fantastic; his eagerness to accept the risk of being disavowed and left to rot in a small, airless prison in the desert really captured the warrior spirit of today’s ronin.

The use of the team locker room was a nice touch as field headquarters get set up where-ever is expedient and off the beaten path. It really reinforced the sense of movement and urgency – the team wasn’t going to occupy that space for more than a few hours at most – it wouldn’t do to have the janitors or the groundskeepers or assistant coaches walk in on them being cool. Still, not a lot of direct commsat shots available in an underground locker room, so poor choice overall (no, the built in landing zone does not make it a good choice – that raises questions from neighbors like, “Why is a helicopter landing in the stadium at 4:30 in the morning?” The first rule in not being seen is: Don’t stand up.

I admired Mamet’s choice to broach the subject of white slavery. It’s a large problem that mostly affects women of former Soviet bloc countries. And yes, many of them (who don’t end up in the Balkans) end up in the Middle East. What do you honestly think oil money gets spent on, outside of jihad and luxury items? You don’t see Saudi Arabia or UAE fielding any aircraft carriers do you?

But I digress.

Though entertaining, the training sequence at the beginning of the movie strays from the truth occasionally. The signs about the pain and victory are a little dated. The idea that the final group of candidates would be reduced by half through (lethal?) hand-to-hand combat is absurd. Nobody wastes that kind of talent. The knife instructor would never get to talk to Scott in real life. She was there because she had a needed skill – but that doesn’t get her into the club. She still ranks with the sheep; Scott’s brush off of her and his scorn of Luke (who came right to the edge of quitting) in the following scene are right on the money.

This film really is exceptional, and not just because it’s a smart man’s answer to the likes of xXx. The movie doesn’t just make you think; it makes you ask yourself, How much goes on every day that never makes the news because of our security and intelligence services?

That said, though, I do have a few questions for Mr. Mamet.

First and foremost – why would any operative run around with out a suppressor on his pistol? (“James Bond does it,” won’t work as an answer to this question.) Forty-five-caliber pistols are very loud, though I must commend the choice of weapon. A .45 offers excellent stopping power, unlike its more glamorous colleague the 9-millimeter. Though truth be told, H&K’s and SOCOM’s are the true firearm of choice.

Second, why does the sidekick cover Kilmer’s entry into the beach house with an MP5? I think someone has seen Navy Seals too many times. MP5’s are close-quarters weapons, great for tight spaces but not primarily used as a long range sniping system. Short barrel – short distance. Again, no suppressor.

Did the secret service agent shoot himself, or was he murdered? The latter seems likely given the turn the film takes at the end, but does Mamet really expect us to believe that this highly trained, callous, and lethal unit would miss an ankle-mounted pistol? The weirdness of the agent’s death nicely indicates dissention in the ranks of this special unit, but I don’t know if that’s what Mamet was really getting at, or if he just screwed up. The moment where the team chief is demanding to know “who frisked the son of a bitch” reminded me of John Cleese’s Pharisee at the stoning of Matthias: “Who threw that stone? Right! Go to the back!”

Plot-advancing incompetence crops up again an hour later when the sidekick (Derek “I just joined the outfit” Luke) makes a plainclothes agent give him ammunition IN FRONT OF A WINDOW, thus revealing the agent’s badge to the sex-slave-trading mark outside.

(Side note: I’m also dubious of Mamet assigning Luke’s character to an op as sensitive as a high-profile hostage recovery. Maybe after 2–4 years of field work.)

This could have happened, I suppose, but then we see the lead agent (Kilmer) shoot the only guy who can lead them to the girl so that he can focus his attention on rendering aid to his wounded sidekick. Let’s think about that one. At this point in the movie the hero has gone through quite a bit, including killing an unarmed prisoner. (Oh, I know – it’s OK, he was on death row! Ugh. Typical Hollywood oversimplification of major moral quandary.) So now the same character who was about to cut out a pimp’s eye for information is going to kill their one lead to help a guy who got himself shot-gunned. I don’t buy it, especially given the Secret Service convention in the convenience store who could have helped him.

Blatant Hollywood-ism – having a discussion (of any duration) inside a C-130 while the engines are running without use of headsets OR megaphones. Sure. Next.

Here’s a more complicated mistake Mamet makes: It’s reasonable to assume that William H. Macy’s and Ed O’Neil’s characters didn’t know where the missing girl was until the conversation with the Arab convict. When they do find out that she’s in the pipeline to the Dubai slave market, they write her off and decide to stage the drowning. Fair enough.

But why do they plant a tracking device in Scott’s phone before he goes on leave? What reason do they have to suspect he won’t let it go at that point? It explains why the snipers are present at the house when Kilmer and Luke return, but it’s not very realistic.

More stupid mistakes follow when Kilmer’s uber-agent fails to check his newly acquired equipment for tracking devices; this after already being tagged once before! Mamet tries to cover his ass by saying that Kilmer’s character is “a shooter, not a planner,” but no one in that world lives very long without detailed planning and continuous reassessment of their situation.

For that matter, the girl in the Boston whorehouse had clearly ID’ed the missing girl the previous night – how could she wind up dead on some professor’s boat the next day if sex-slavers had her the night before?

The next blunder: Kilmer hands Luke his keychain during their first mission in Boston.

1. He never asks for it back.
2. Sidekick boy is able to trace him back to his cover home in the Midwest.

Again, Über-Agent doesn’t realize that a personal possession has identifying marks on it that could indicate its origin and thus his location. In all of Mamet’s reading on the subject, he must never have come across the concept of “sterilization” of clothing and equipment prior to conducting operations. He sort of hints that he might have when we see Kilmer tell an agent to sign for money in his stead but forgets it with the keychain bit. So he’ll think of that but not the bit-shaped key chain with a local farmer’s supply stamped on it? Sure, Inspector Cleauseau. “Does your dog bite?”

Our hero breaks character and gets emotional after almost being killed by a sniper. His phone call to the cutout with the “Chinaman” is rushed and excited. The code words were great, but the intensity belied someone who was losing control, if only momentarily. Perhaps this was meant to show us that our hero now realizes that all is not well? The chain of being has been broken? His masters may not be wholly good? The apparent agent suicide didn’t clue him in I guess.

Lastly – why in the hell wasn’t Scott wearing his body armor? Our black ops guys are big, strong, and have that “moral flexibility” that lets them sleep well at night, but they aren’t Superman. The plates and carrier (very different from what US forces are seen wearing in Iraq) would easily fit under his shirt and allow for ease of movement. All the ‘getting shot’ in the hanger was unnecessary, but did move the plot along.

At the end, the film is left wide open for a sequel, though I doubt we shall see one. The hero cannot return to his home and so disappears into the rush of London’s Piccadilly Circus. Another abrupt emotional turn happens when Kilmer’s character hears a man say that he’s heading home.

“Lucky man,” says Kilmer’s uber-agent – even though it seems like all of his superiors back home are wackos who tried to kill a staunchly loyal soldier.

And briefly: In that same ending scene in London, I can’t help but think that Mamet put Kilmer’s character – a bearer of true knowledge about the world – next to the smarmy news anchors as an indictment; as a reminder that the media (and us?) are puppets. Spartan ends with the lionizing of criminal administration officials, and it makes my stomach turn because it happens all the time.

Now, having said all that – it really is a marvelous film. If Spy Game showed us the world of the case officer, Spartan shows us the even darker realm of the operative. Far be it from me to quote A Few Good Men at a time like this, but Mamet showed us that world we “don’t talk about at parties” and reminded us that we have rough men standing ready to do violence so that we can sleep peacefully in our beds.