(2004) **** R
106 min. Warner Brothers. Director: David Mamet. Cast: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Kristen Bell, Johnny Messner.

Writer-director David Mamet's unpleasantly truthful paranoid thriller Spartan should contribute to our turn-of-the-century zeitgeist as Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View did to the post-Watergate '70s. Mamet's movie of the moment, however, is far wilier than Pakula's well-crafted but basically simplistic stomach-churner. Spartan plays like the tony thriller upgrade it appears to be, more elegant and snappy than the rest of the pack, but Mamet's sleight-of-film is more: a hall of mirrors with surprising depth of thematic field.

Mamet long ago proved himself a master of the long con he so loves to reiterate. In plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and films like House of Games, Mamet played out the mendacious maneuvers of businessmen and grifters. More recently, in his pseudonymous script for Ronin, Mamet used a metaphor of cut-loose feudal samurai to toy with the global and personal impact of political fallout; the cast-out cold warriors of Ronin wandered while staring warily into their own moral compasses. Here, Mamet likens America's pervasive, bullying influence to the conquering instincts of the rigidly militaristic ancient Greek city-state of Sparta (toiling as it did under a far-shadowing ruler). Mamet's Spartans, too, are meant to defend king and country, no questions asked; we, like the Spartan spies, have no time for questions as Mamet and his government honchos bombard us with face-value narrative on a ticking-clock deadline.

To describe the deliriously dense plot of Spartan is to ruin its natural impact. Suffice it to say that Val Kilmer's slippery government agent takes on a mission of urgent import to national security, reluctantly involving two trainees (Derek Luke and Tia Texada); one of his many terse lessons: "You don't want to go to the desert." Soon enough, Mamet makes implicit that the President's daughter (Kristen Bell) is involved, the "war prize" caught up in a regimented culture in which pain is divinely, profoundly linked with propagandistic "victory." On its surface merits, Mamet's plot shifts paradigms with ruthless efficiency, pausing for no man (not even Mamet stalwart William H. Macy). The effectively stolid acting--in typical Mamet fettle--is the strictly unadorned medium for Mamet's message.

On the deeper level, where the author seethes with righteous anger, Mamet gives us a sign: we are "the girl," America's deeply confused, lost and neglected child, driven to self-loathing despair and in dire need of a heroic rescue. For all his "cockeyed" cynicism, Mamet is an American child who's grateful for the lone wolf willing to go "off the reservation," a child who gets to stay home while our warriors fend in the dreaded "desert." Spartan also evinces both a dread and gratitude for happenstance—control is an illusion, even for master mamipulators.

Mamet ups the ante on himself by conjuring more adventurous visuals than usual (along with Juan Ruiz Anchía, shooting his fourth Mamet script); the slick, dark look blankets the picture with sinister overtones well suited to Mamet's hard-boiled dialogue and unblinking storytelling. More importantly, Mamet can no longer smirk about government dog-wagging; Spartan is as nasty as he wants to be. This is a Mamet who, like so many of us, gagged on the CNN tape loops of the Twin Towers and Jessica Lynch. As Kilmer's road-tested soldier teaches, "It's all in the mind, Sergeant. That's where the battle's won."

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