A contemporary American renaissance man, David Mamet has had an incredibly rich and fulfilling career spanning through half a century in diverse fields of artistic creation. A revered playwright, highly respected screenwriter, established film director and passionate newspaper columnist, Mamet started to pave his way into American culture when he met Robert Sickinger, a theater director from Chicago. What started out as occasional work at Sickinger’s Hull House Theater developed into a great love story between Mamet and the theater, a dedicated relationship that would last a lifetime. Mamet first made a name for himself with plays such as The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, while his 1984 Glengarry Glen Ross earned him the Pulitzer Prize. In 1985, he joined forces with the great William H. Macy and thirty of their acting students from New York University to establish the Atlantic Theater Company. While honing his craft, Mamet simultaneously entered the film business, beginning with the screenplay for the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, followed by the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Verdict. With this substantial boost in reputation, Mamet later penned the scripts for The Untouchables, Hoffa, The Edge as well as the much-acclaimed film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, but also started to helm the adaptations of his screenplays from the director’s chair: House of Games, Things Change, Homicide … During all these years, he developed his own specific, garnished style of screenwriting, so distinguished and recognizable not only that it entered the pop-culture vocabulary – the term “Mamet speak” refers to the writer’s often cynical, direct and precise style of dialogue writing – but also that he practically didn’t even need to use end credits to get his recognition. “Spartan opens without any credits except its title, but I quickly knew it was written by David Mamet,” Roger Ebert wrote at the beginning of his review of Mamet’s 2004 action thriller we’ll talk about in a minute, “because nobody else hears and writes dialogue the way he does.” Spartan is the real reason we turn to Mamet’s long-lasting career: while the versatile playwright-turned screenwriter-turned director’s body of work certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of public recognition, the Val Kilmer-helmed thriller Spartan was kind of squeezed under the collective radar and is not often highlighted for what it actually is: an underappreciated gem of a quality genre piece.
The film introduces us to Robert Scott, a former distinguished member of the United States Marine Corps working as a selection cadre member for Delta Force, right in the middle of a crucial exercise that might determine the future military career of a dead-tired recruit named Curtis, trying to catch up with his knife fighting instructor Sergeant Jacqueline Black in an exhausting sprint through the forest. Soon after, as Scott prepares to leave the training grounds, he is called in to assist in a top-secret operation of retrieving a kidnapped student. The girl who went missing is not just anyone: she is the President’s daughter. At first acting only as a sort of a consultant to a whole team of Secret Service professionals desperately trying to figure out what went wrong and how it was even possible for the First Daughter to get kidnapped while being heavily protected by government agents, Scott gets involved more heavily as the situation becomes more time-sensitive and dangerous. He is a dedicated working bee at the country’s total disposal, as he states on several occasions, and will stop at nothing to get the girl back. As Scott and his team, however, follow the clues, interrogate – and intimidate – a series of suspects and gradually learn the girl’s kidnapping was a part of a clandestine sex trafficking operation connected to a slavery ring based in Dubai, the circumstances of the crime reveal themselves to be much shadier and more mysterious than initially believed. It was actually Scott’s first-scene recruit Curtis whose uncorrupt moral compass and military code open the protagonist’s eyes, and from a cold-blooded military machine blindly following his superior’s orders Robert Scott changes to a man willing to connect the dots and do what almost everybody least wants him to do: think for himself. “I ain’t a planner, I ain’t a thinker. I never wanted to be. You got to set your motherfucker to receive,” he explains to Curtis at one point. “Listen to me. They don’t go through the door, we don’t ask why. That’s not a cost, it’s benefit. Because we get to travel light. They tell me where to go. Tell me what to do when I get there.” But whatever traveling awaits Scott, as soon as he puts the President’s daughter’s well-being and the truth at the top of his priority list, it definitely isn’t going to be light.
There are several particular elements that make Spartan a really great film. The first thing, and this really comes as no surprise considering David Mamet’s “specific set of skills”, is the screenplay. What makes the script stand out so much is not primarily the way Mamet labored to shape up the plot into an exhilarating thrill-packed journey of the isolated protagonist given much more weight and intricacy by the political conspiracy in the background, a glooming wider context that never stands directly under the spotlight but rather makes an interesting, enlightening backdrop that makes the forefront even more compelling. The main plot points, though a sound backbone to Mamet’s narrative, are not unbelievably refreshing or in any way mind-blowing. However, the way the story is structured, and the elegant and stylish manner it is presented to the viewers, is a factor that definitely distinguishes it in a sea of other thrillers. Mamet doesn’t explain, he doesn’t simplify, he never gives in to cheap temptations of delivering the story to the viewers baked and ready to go: he wants the audience to engage, to think, to become intrigued. In Spartan, we’re witnessing a series of events, we observe how the characters respond to pieces of information we can’t possibly understand by ourselves, we hear Robert Scott communicate with the people in and around his unit without fully knowing what messages they are conveying. And the point is – we’re not supposed to know. We’re not a part of their unit, are we? The plot slowly reveals itself to us, unravels in front of our eyes, as we follow a bunch of people doing jobs the nature of which we aren’t allowed to be familiar with. Mamet knows that the beauty of high-quality storytelling is not just in creating memorable and quotable dialogue, even though there’s plenty of that in Spartan: the beauty and attraction lie in the way information is given and, just as often, not given. “That’s the fun of it,” he revealed in an interview for Screenwriter’s Utopia. “Anybody can write a script that has, ‘Jim, how were things since you were elected governor of Minnesota? How’s your albino daughter? As of course you know, Mr. Smith, your son has myopia. It’s amazing that, having that myopia, he was winning the national spelling bee.’ That’s easy; that’s not challenging. The trick is to take a story that might be complex and make it simple enough that people will want to catch up with it rather than stopping them and explaining to them why they should be interested because then they might understand, but they won’t care. What makes them interested is to make them catch up.” We never get the feeling we’re watching something staged for us to enjoy: we feel like we’re actually doing a bit of spying of our own, with the privilege of peeping through a window into a world usually sealed off from us.
One of the tools with which Mamet achieved this is a thorough study of how the members of the Special Forces communicate. Working with advisors, the acting crew not only copied the way they talk to each other, but also appropriated their body language and general demeanor. “We had a technical advisor, Eric Haney, who was around quite a bit,” Val Kilmer remembered. “He was very helpful, because he has lived this same life beyond the government, like this character, where his own actions become, technically speaking, illegal.” Haney was a former member of the Delta Force and even wrote a book called Inside the Delta Force. “They speak very casually, but they’re amazing characters because they are trained like a brain surgeon or like a combat medic, where someone’s life is on the line. Your ability to handle that stress and do something that is as intricate as getting inside someone’s body and put it back together is how they live. It’s a very, very stressful job. Most of them die. There’s zero chance of most of their missions succeeding. They’re genuine warriors, although they’re not warmongers, because they like it when there’s peacetime, but they’re also action junkies that thrive in this place in life where they pretty much know they’re going to die.” The crew also endured difficult physical training sessions during which they learned to use a variety of weapons. That’s probably part of the reason why Val Kilmer gave us one of the best roles of his career, as memorable as the parts in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Tombstone. With Derek Luke, Tia Texada, Kristen Bell and veterans Ed O’Neill and William H. Macy, he stands at the center of a great ensemble and radiates with composure, restrained confidence and sharp wit. When a criminal pleads for his life and promises Kilmer’s character he’ll treat him as a brother if he helps him, Kilmer simply retorts in a deadpan tone that his brother used to beat him. The role suits him perfectly, and now that’s established, it’s logical to ask if Mamet had specifically Kilmer in mind when he wrote the part. The truth is actually really far from it, and it’s pretty hilarious. Mamet and producer Art Linson were having lunch in Hollywood and right at the next table there was Kilmer. They just looked at each other and later sent him the script. A match made in a restaurant.
Hand in hand with Mamet’s way with words and his disliking of time-wasting exposition is his clean and economic direction. There’s not a shot wasted: what we see in Spartan is exactly what Mamet decided to include in the picture precisely to get the point of the film across. For instance, plot-wise speaking, the President is a vital character whose actions determine the course of the story, and yet, Mamet never shows his face. Background politics, as we stated, aren’t under the focus of his lens. On the other hand, there are shots that might not seem as pivotal, but nevertheless get included: just remember the sequence where Kilmer’s character decided to roll up an impromptu cigarette to appease the kidnapped girl. He rolls it using a little leaflet his recruit Curtis carried with him, a piece of paper stating the elementary rules of war and conduct that every soldier should hold to the highest of standards. And yet, when the circumstances demand it, this paper is curled up and burnt for smoking. With this little shot, Mamet conveys the far greater message of the hypocrisy, selfishness and manipulation of the government and its exploitative attitude towards patriotism, and he doesn’t need an enraged, three-minute-long monologue to do it.
Spartan isn’t a film many people will remember when a discussion comes up on the subject of the best thrillers of the 21st century, and it’s exactly this that prompted us to do this little write-up: it’s not a masterpiece of epic scale, it’s not Mamet’s best film and neither is it Val Kilmer’s career-defining role. It’s simply a finely crafted piece of quality filmmaking well worth your time.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read David Mamet’s screenplay for Spartan [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Interviews with Kristen Bell, Ed O'Neill, Val Kilmer, and William H. Macy.
Eric L. Spencer's Interview with Val Kilmer- Spartan
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Mamet’s Spartan.