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It's a story. A story about David Mamet.

Writer/director in theaters with 'Spartan'

By Andy Culpepper

David Mamet (center) directs Val Kilmer and Derek Luke in "Spartan."

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David Mamet
Val Kilmer

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- In a Los Angeles hotel room to talk about his new movie "Spartan," David Mamet is reminded of a question posed to him a few days earlier.

He was in San Francisco to put finishing touches on a world premiere staging of "Dr. Faustus," his version of "Faust," and was asked: Have you made your own deal with the devil?

The 56-year-old writer and director laughs.

"If someone wanted to sum up my career, they would put on my tombstone, 'His mind was racing, and he wrote it down,' " he recalled. "Because the deal with the devil is ... I'm trying to play the hand I was dealt."

With "Spartan," Mamet is trying his hand at a political thriller. The film is a dark, sometimes violent drama starring Val Kilmer as a rogue special ops agent who goes in search of the kidnapped daughter of the American president.

Mamet has a different term for the film, though.

"Well, it's a fairy tale," he explains. "As I say, it's a dark, dark, fairy tale, and it's not a political statement, although it's a political thriller."

Distinctive dialogue

Though Mamet's trying a different subject matter with "Spartan," it's typical of other works in his filmography -- a career that includes writing and directing "House of Games" (1987), "The Spanish Prisoner" (1997) and "Heist" (2001). "Spartan" has his signature dialogue cadence, a start-stop repetition that's a hallmark of Mamet's movies and his plays, the latter which include "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross."

"It's hard to put your finger on it, but he's got a great rhythm to it, you know, a very distinct style," says Kilmer. "Like in this story, it's just the main thing isn't so much the verbal rhythm that he's famous for as just the juxtaposition of the scenes and the movement of the characters. It's very fast."

William H. Macy, who has a small role in "Spartan," is a mainstay of Mamet's films.

Fast -- and packed with action as well as dialogue. As influences for "Spartan," Mamet cites Japanese samurai films and films such as "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Parallax View."

There's also a bit of history thrown in, as the title suggests.

"In the old days, when Sparta was the pre-eminent military power in the Mediterranean, if a neighboring state pleaded to Sparta for military aid, the king would send one guy," Mamet observes.

Kilmer's character is that lone wolf. He's brought in by his own government, then left to fend for himself when he discovers a secretive group within the government -- powerful people who would prefer his mission didn't succeed.

"If everything is taken away from you including your sense of camaraderie, including your sense of patriotism, including your sense of unit cohesion -- are you still willing to go through with the mission?" Mamet asks. "That's the question put to him in the second act."

Conspiracy theories

Mamet's dark fairy tale spins off into another, more sinister direction when a cover-up ensues. This is familiar terrain for Mamet fans -- the writer is fond of the con man's milieu, which usually entails double-crosses on top of double-crosses over twists and beneath cover-ups.

In such a place, getting to the truth can be difficult -- or impossible, he says.

"I figure any system which is closed, where there is secrecy and there is the possibility of invidious advance, one person over another -- anybody outside the system is never going to get the truth," he says.

"If there's a cabal that seized power legitimately or illegitimately, one of the ways the cabal is going to keep power for itself ... and extend power, is through secrecy."

He ponders history again, and the ways it can be twisted.

"One of the reasons we have a representative government here," he says, "is that the Founders, in their great wisdom, realized that things were going to go wrong.

"So if you look at the Constitution in depth, and look at the way the electoral system operates, it's not a prescription for good people to be governed by good people, but for a consortium of human beings to try to ensure that someone is watching everybody else," he adds. "Because it's human nature to go bad when given power."

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