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The film begins in China at a prison, where Brad Pitt and 3 other men dressed as doctors come to administer shots. Pitt looking to rescue a female prisoner, fakes an electrocution and when the power goes out and the guards think he is dead, he goes into action. He finds the girl, and while the guards are rushing to get the power back on, Pitt makes his way out the prison with the girl in an ambulance. The main guard suspects something and stops the ambulance before it can leave the gates. The Chinese capture Pitt and the girl and drag them back into prison.
Next scene: Robert Redford is at the CIA headquarters; it appears to be his last day. Before he can leave, big shot department heads call him into an office to ask him some questions. Pitt is a CIA agent himself, and in China, he was on his own mission, but the U.S. CIA thinks its espionage. The Chinese are going to kill him in 24 hours. The CIA wants Redfords input on Pitts character, before the execution. We see a story through flashbacks unfold as Redford tells us about when he first met Pitt.
First, in Vietnam, 1975. Pitt (a Marine Sniper) was hired to kill a general, and was successful. Then, years later in Germany where Redford meets Pitt again and this time asks him to work for the CIA. Redford begins to train Pitt on how to observe and how to get people to do things for him--how to be a spy.
His first mission is to smuggle an East German across the Berlin border. As Pitt and the German drive close to the border, they are pulled over by German police and Pitt puts stuff in own mouth to make himself throw up. The police think they are a couple of drunks. They let them go, but while the car is stopped at the bar, Redford calls Pitt from the American Embassy in Germany and tells him that the plan is no go, abort, and let the German man off before the border, going across without him. Pitt is angry about it, but does what he is told.
Pitt and Redford meet again the next morning and Pitt is angered because he had to stop the mission. Redford explains that this is the way is works and if you dont like it, you can leave. Pitt is still upset, but stays.
Second Mission: Pitt and Redford are in Beirut plotting to kill a terrorist.
They have breakfast in the war torn country and Pitt tells Redford about an operation called dinner out, where the guys get cool gifts for each other. He gives a gift to Redford that he had gotten (important later on). Pitts mission is to convince a doctor to poison a terrorist. The doctor agrees to do it, since he thinks the same terrorist killed his parents (horrible pictures shown to him by Redford). The doctor works in a refugee camp with an English woman. At the same time, Pitt falls for this woman. Big problem with this mission is Redford also has some Lebanese unorganized militia to go to a backup plan in case the doctor cant get to the terrorist in time. The Lebanese plan to blow up the whole building with dynamite. This is exactly what happens, as Pitt cant get the doctor to the terrorists apartment fast enough. Next, a truck loaded with dynamite and a suicide bomber drive right into the apartment and blow the whole thing up. The doctor is killed and Pitt sees this.
After this mission, Pitt has called it quits, he is tired of the behind the back nonsense and that he cant complete missions the way he wants to. Redford understands, and knows this is the nature of the game. They say good-bye. Pitt goes back to meet his girl. He is in love with her. She is gone and has been kidnapped. Redford swapped her in another side deal, because he didnt trust her and thought she might be working with terrorists on her own agenda to get Pitt. Come to find out later, Redford was wrong.
Flash-forward, we are back in the office with Redford and the CIA officials, who have their own agenda on Pitt as well (still in Chinese prison awaiting execution). The girl that Pitt was rescuing in prison in the beginning of the movie was that same English girl from Beirut. Redford knows this now and he wants to help Pitt, because the CIA is going to let him die. Redford trained Pitt, and even though they didnt agree all the time, Pitt was his protégé. And, Redford now realizing that Pitt is going to die, must do something to save him.
Redford calls all the people he knows in China, to include newspaper writers and also his friend at the American Embassy in China, to get Pitt out. He also finds a military outfit near China that could pull off such a rescue. (This operation is unauthorized.) He types and faxes and writes up the secret (fake) operation. And, forges the head of CIA signature. He also pulls a huge amount of money and liquidates his bank account. He must get the electric company in China to shut off the electricity for about 7 minutes to get Pitt out of the Chinese prison.
Last scene, we see Redford calling a high powered U.S. Navy officer asking him if he got the fax, with a yes, the officer is ready for the operation and we see commandos gather into helicopters to get Pitt. They lower down into the prison and rescue Pitt and the girl within minutes. Pitt was heavily beaten and the girls head is shaved. As the successful mission ends, the helicopters take off and fly across the beautiful land, the pilot relays on the radio, that operation dinner out was a success. Pitt hears this, and sort of smiles because he knows what is means, and that his long time friend and teacher, Redford saved him and his girl.
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