Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Man, it must suck to be a spy.
Set at the height of the Cold War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about a high-ranking member of British intelligence who gets ousted by his peers after a covert operation goes terribly wrong. A year later, a rogue agent receives word that a Soviet spy has penetrated the top tier of MI6 and he’s been feeding British and American secrets to Mother Russia for years. Despite being a potential suspect, the former agency veteran gets pulled out of retirement to finish the investigation his old boss started and find out which of his old colleagues is working for the Kremlin.
Well, folks, word on the street is that this is one tough cookie to try and keep up with. Well, folks, they weren’t kiddin’. In a preventative measure to avoid the sensation of being flat-out dumbfounded by a movie I was very anxious to see, I went ahead and read John le Carré’s source material beforehand. As I finished reading the last page just minutes before the lights went down and turned off my reading light/cell phone so as not to distract anyone from the ridiculous new trailer for The Grey, I felt confident, I felt smart, I felt like I’d just shotgunned a bottle of Ritalin and had the focus of a Zen master. As I soon came to find out, I had made a very wise decision.
So why make it so hard on us? For starters, attempting to cram le Carré’s novel into a 120-page script is like trying to turn a labyrinth into a jigsaw puzzle. Every new sentence and every new detail is just more important as the last, it’s twice as hard to follow as the movie, and there are about 500 different characters with 500 different codenames who all speak in jargon you’ve never heard before because le Carré freaking invented it. This is where the term “mole” originated from, and it makes sense considering that le Carré was at one time a member of British intelligence. Yup, “dense” is the word with this one, so it’s only natural that every line of dialogue and every silent inference serves as vital information in moving things along. Miss something down the road, don’t expect someone to repeat it.
But what’s great about it is that you’ll want to listen closer and you’ll find yourself drawing one conclusion after the next without anyone in the film or the theater having to spell it out for you. From the outset it sounds daunting, but you can do it, just not every day that movies let use our brains. What’s also great about it is how Tomas Alfredson’s approach as a director complements le Carré’s strengths as a writer. I was expecting a lot of talking and a lot of stuff being thrown at me all at once, but what I got was something far more quiet, controlled, and perfectly fitting. When people do talk, they don’t beat around the bush and updates are always given on a need-to-know basis, which is a fine way to keep conversations at a bare minimum and a fine way to keep the audience from tuning anything out. When major revelations come to light, they’re stripped of the usual bells and whistles and are instead done very matter-of-factly, as though it was only a matter of time.
It’s very unusual to see a movie like this that continually cuts from one scene to the next without idle banter or banter at all and relies so heavily on implications over actions, but it’s a brilliant way to do things and only makes the finished product stand out that much more from what we’re used to seeing from the genre. On top of that, it’s just damn pretty to look. From the imagery, to the outfits; from the settings, to scenery – all of it does wonders to make the profession look as cool and grim as it absolutely is. The only downside is that when you have this many characters at your disposal, the spotlight isn’t always shared evenly. Like I said, undertaking this movie and doing the novel justice was a tall order to begin with, but when everyone is a suspect and some major characters start falling by the wayside, you notice it. There are also certain details and character intricacies that get left out, but the plot is more or less verbatim and the gripes end there. Also not sure if you’d notice any of this if you’re going in blind.
And as for the cast, what did you expect? This is England’s Greatest Hits right here and I don’t see why the names on that poster wouldn’t make someone want to drop what they’re doing and cancel all appointments for the next two hours. I’ve already written my love letter to Colin Firth thanks to A Single Man, so I’ll just say that my adoration of him has only grown since this past weekend as one of the head intelligence officers, Bill Haydon; Tom Hardy continues his global conquest of badassery in a great turn as scalp hunter, Ricki Tarr; this is the first time I’ve really liked Mark Strong in a movie, so he gets a shout-out as former agent Jim Prideaux; and the legendary Gary Oldman is fantastic as our guy George Smiley. Keeping with the tone of the film and the performances of those around him, Oldman is very understated, very unassuming, and it’s very impressive how well he pulls it off for a guy who’s usually playing the tweaked-out madman. I don’t know if there’s an Oscar in it for him, but being that he’s one of the best actors we’ve got and this is only more evidence of that simple fact, I’d be nothing but ecstatic to see him get it. There are also a ton of other actors here who all great in their respective roles, but for the sake of not rambling any further than I already have, I’m leaving it at that.
As I’ve hopefully conveyed, this is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. The sad thing about this movie is that I can already sense the outcries from people who didn’t like it because they thought it was boring, slow or that there wasn’t enough action to balance out all the talking. Not being one of those people, I think that sucks, but it’s also an understandable complaint considering the things we’ve been conditioned to expect from spy movies. For instance, when I go see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol later this month, I won’t be dropping 13 bucks with the hopes of watching Ethan Hunt push paper for two hours. See, thanks to Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the life of the spy has been glamorized and then some by the powers that be in Hollywood who can turn a much easier profit with car chases and firefights than desk jockeys speaking in code. And that’s fine, it’s not like those movies suffer for putting pleasure before business, but if there’s anything we learned from The Good Shepherd, it’s that life as a spy is as unglamorous as they come. It’s dirty work that these characters have to perform on their friends and colleagues, and it’s not always as happy as some movies would like us to believe. There’s definitely entertainment to be had, although it’s far more an exercise in authenticity than escapism, and what you ultimately get out of it is dependent on what you put in.
Yes, you will have to pay very close attention to if you want to understand what’s unfolding before you, but why should that be a detractor? After all, there is no shortage whatsoever of movies and film makers that are more than happy to spoon-feed you a tale so you won’t have to worry about getting confused along the way. I don’t know about you, but it’s just nice to see a grown-up movie about grown-up things that doesn’t underestimate its audience for a change and challenges us to play along. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a patient movie in practice that requires patience in turn, and whether that sounds like sheer fun or sheer torture, it was utterly enthralling watching the pieces come together and I had no idea where the time had gone once they’d all fallen into place. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, look somewhere else, but by the same token, that’s exactly why I liked it. Sure helps to do your homework though.