On the 12th of March, 2004 – 10 years ago exactly, David Mamet's film Spartan was released in theaters to average critical acclaim (it currently holds a 64% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and weak financial success (it made $2 million its opening weekend, on a budget of about $19 million). Only a few stalwart and noisy critics (like this one) bothered to trumpet its strengths, and perhaps list it amongst the best films of the year (which I did). Well now, 10 years after the fact, the time has come to look back on Spartan, and see who was right in the end.
Spartan, like all of David Mamet's films, is less about the story, and more about dialogue and character. His characters tend to be cold, business-minded, and deliberately abrasive and often insulting all in the name of Getting the Job Done. True, the default mode of most action heroes is one of steely determination (see anything with Tom Cruise, and most superhero movies), but Mamet eschews the usual brand of slick Hollywood heroism for something more earthy and natural: his heroes are assholes and they don't care that they are assholes. In the world of Mamet heroism, the ends always justifies the means.
Mamet's heroes also tend to have an unbreakable personal code of ethics (think of this, of Heist, and of Redbelt); they have a task at hand, and they will play by their own rules to achieve it. Again, though, this is not the usual “plays by their own rules” heroic would-be outsider seen in many Hollywood thrillers. These people are not on the outside. They are above. They are better. They are great at what they do, and we don't regard them for what maverick's they are, but for how much integrity they have, and how much skill. Mamet's heroes are essentially the tough, jerk PE coach you openly loathe, but who actually has the physical chops to back up every one of their boasts.
Mamet achieves his ultra-professional tone by stuffing his film with highly affected, profanity-laced shop talk. I love shop talk in movies. I love when characters talk slightly over the audience's heads. This is the way we all talk at our jobs. Every profession has its own secret language. Mamet bothers to learn that language, and throw it at us wholesale without giving us any sort of tutorial. Sure, we may be lost for a bit, but eventually (usually quickly) we come about to the banter. And we feel smarter for it.
With this penchant for skilled, resolute heroes, and detailed shop talk, it then makes sense that Mamet would eventually make a film about the CIA. What job has more steely workman and more oblique jobspeak than the CIA, where everything is secret, and operatives have to be the best in order to survive. As the lead CIA spook Scott, Val Kilmer embodies everything Mamet loves. He is tall and strong, handsome but doesn't care, and so job-oriented he has gained a reputation as a bit of a maverick. When Kilmer appears on screen for the first time, we instantly know all this about him. He is as the title suggests. Spartan is, from its first moments, not going to be a contrived or usual thriller. Something is going to happen in this one.
And happen it does. The president's daughter (Kristen Bell) is kidnapped, and Scott must go to find her. The actual machinations of the plot are so twisted, they're nearly impossible to recall after a single viewing. Needless to say there is a team of experts who alternately help and hinder Scott in his quest (amongst them Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Clark Gregg, and Tia Texada), people die, Scott kills some people, there is a Lebanese conspiracy, there is an uncovered sex trafficking ring, and the eventual twisted reveal that the president may not want his daughter back.
Watching Spartan is like reading the Principia Mathematica. You may not understand a damn thing, but you somehow realize that something very, very important is going on in front of you.
Spartan, while not terrifically deep, is the kind of movie that warrants multiple viewings. Partly so you can unwind its twisted plot, but also so you can suss out Mamet's liquidity of politics. Mamet has famously “jumped the fence” so to speak, once being a huge booster for the Left, eventually rejecting that ethos and becoming and equally passionate booster for the Right. Spartan came at a time of political transition for Mamet, and it shows. Spartan exists in a complex – and stirringly interesting – political middle ground. It seems to find greedy politicians in the wrong, while putting the means of power in the hands of unshakably moral, hard-working soldiers. I don't want to comment on the connection to Lebanon.
But here's the thing: Spartan is not a rah-rah war booster like, say, the vacuous and terrible Act of Valor. This is not a blind, patriotic celebration of soldiers. Mamet is too sophisticated for that. It's mostly a head-shaking admission of exhaustion. The people in charge just don't understand, but I know my job, I know what's right, and I'm going to do what I'm going to do. I know how to be patriotic, and it's by doing my job well. This is a film that speaks the words of “politics be damned,” while still feeling overtly politically swayed. It's somehow revolutionary and restrictive all at once. It thinks Left and leans Right. Clinton meets Clancy.
And how refreshing. There are too many international spy thrillers in the world that remain in a comfortably artificial apolitical place. James Bond, for instance, never has to contend with a government (other than the evil, evil Cold War Russians), usually grappling with free-agent deranged billionaires. Indeed, most American thrillers (at least of my own post Cold War era) eventually reveal that it wasn't a foreign power at the helm of the film's malfeasance, but a Washington insider on the make. Spartan does indeed have a Washington insider vibe to it, but it also deals with some of the more down-to-earth realities of international geopolitical strife.
2004 was a sketchy time for the world. Bush Jr. was in the White House, we had just started a lengthy and costly conflict abroad, and the American people were distrustful of, well, just about everything. Spartan may not have had the most cogent of stories, but it did – at least tonally – tap into that distrust. The world of war, spies, and politics just becomes less and less clear, and Mamet gave us a great little spy movie that deals with that opacity, without giving into the tired “shadow government” mentality that wafts off of airport thrillers. It introduced a hard-edged tone to the proceedings. And that was something new.
Happy anniversary, Spartan. Continue to be outraged.
Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.