By Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a movie based on Jean Le Carre’s novel by the same name. It’s the story of George Smiley and his efforts to root out a mole in MI-6 during the Cold War. Gary Oldman takes the lead with a heavy hitting cast including John Hurt and Colin Firth.
Jean Le Carre is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell. Cornwell worked for the British Intelligence Services MI-5 and MI-6 from 1952 until 1964, during the time the Cambridge Five were passing information from those agencies to the Soviets. (See Holmes on the Cambridge Forty in Archives.) Some sources say one of their leaders, Kim Philby, worked behind the scenes to have Cornwell dismissed from MI-6 and gave his name to the Soviets, ending Cornwell’s intelligence career.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the novelisation of the hunt for the Cambridge spies, and the mole Smiley is searching for is based on Kim Philby. Let this be a reminder to all of you who know authors. Don’t mess with us or your dastardly deeds will be immortalized.
As a veteran of the Cold War, Holmes’ comments regarding the nature of this movie are far more erudite than my own so I will leave further analysis to him. However, this movie did have me asking him one question. Do top-level intelligence officers actually pause and stare meaningfully at each other that often during the course of their days?
His answer when he quit laughing? “They do sometimes get very quiet in meetings when they are thinking. In this movie, though, they were giving the audience time to think. It had to do with the complexity of the movie and not with intelligence procedures.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, in my view, one of the more realistic spy films that I have seen. If you’re in the mood for wild chase scenes, lots of beautiful, naked women, handsome hunks, and running gun fights, keep looking. This isn’t it. If, on the other hand, you want a realistic story about Cold War spooks, this is a movie well worth watching.
This is a spy movie but not an “action” movie. Much of the action that needs to take place is in the viewer’s mind. The viewer is given more than enough information to resolve all of the questions as long as the viewer stays engaged with the plot. This is not a movie to go to if your brain is tired and you need a laugh, graphic sex scenes or loud explosions.
If you intend to grope whomever you bring to the theater with you, go alone and grope them later. That tactic worked well for my wife and I. She went shopping, whereby she presumably temporarily avoided being groped by a dangerous man in a dark room, and I saw the movie while not allowing myself to be too distracted by any thoughts of groping. After giving fair warning to my young adult children that there would be no sex or wild shoot outs in the movie, they declined to see it. So I sat alone in the theater and, after politely asking* the elderly couple in the row in front of me to please stop their overt and not at all silent groping activity, I allowed myself to be carried back to rainy London nights during the Cold War.
Before I get on with the movie, let me take a moment to issue an important public service message. If you are between the ages of 18 and 40, please don’t embarrass me by making your groping activities too obvious while sitting near me. If you are over forty, I am even less inclined to tolerate your overt groping. If you lack the skills to grope your play partner properly and discreetly without annoying grumpy old cranks like me, then by all means stay at home and grope away as you please or until the Viagra runs out.
The movie (once you scare away any local gropers) is about the search for a mole in British MI-6 by George Smiley, a recently retired deputy director. The retired spy finds himself being asked by run-of-the-mill cowardly, sleazebag politicians to ferret out a possible mole without rocking any political boats. In a better world, the politicians would pretend for a moment that they were not slimy worms, and they would order a full and immediate investigation without concern for political fallout. Poor George Smiley lives in our world so he knows that probably won’t happen, and he agrees to take on the thankless task.
If you pay attention in this part of the movie, you will catch a brilliantly played split second when Smiley considers giving in to his emotions and throwing the politician from the high spot that they occupy at the meeting. You can read his mind and sympathize with him. From your seat in the theater, you’ll be wanting to smack these supercilious bastards.
Even though Smiley knows that he can more easily get the job done without them wasting more of the world’s oxygen supply, he relies on his well-honed self discipline, ignores their insults, and gets on with the task at hand. Which is as it should be because if we all give in to our darkest instincts, our world will soon look like Iraq does this week, and the whole reason for having an MI-6 is to keep that from happening. So future spooks who are reading this, remember . . . leave seemingly urgent questions of justice to God and the voters and concentrate on your work.
Smiley is handicapped by a lack of resources and by the need to keep his investigation quiet, but he and his capable assistants rely on their collective experience and sharp minds to get things done. Smiley uses every spook’s most important weapon to crack the case. His brain.
The movie was well cast, well acted, and well directed. The director skillfully used the dreary scenery and the music to portray the dread and depression that a George Smiley would feel in his circumstances. He has to contend with feelings of betrayal and trepidation at what a mole might mean for him and for his country without letting it all overwhelm him and render him useless. He has to ignore personal feelings and likes and dislikes to peer at a smoke-filled reality through multiple warped lenses to glimpse the truth.
The movie clearly and realistically portrays that dynamic, and the viewer can easily imagine himself in the same situation and can ask himself how he/she would deal with the same. Who do you have that can help? Who would you call first? Who would you avoid? How will you get to the files that you want without alarming anyone? Who can you trust?
As long as we remember what audience this movie is for, I can’t see any reason to offer any criticisms of this film. The plot holes were so minute as to make them meaningless. Don’t even look for them. Just enjoy the movie completely.
This movie won’t change your life unless it scares you off from seeking a job in intelligence, or you get arrested for overt public groping. But it will give you more insight into one aspect of the intelligence world and its complicated history. It’s a very good movie. Movies that can keep you awake without sex and explosions are rare so don’t miss this one. We give it a .44 magnum rating** and we’ll actually pay to go watch this movie again.
Have you read this book or seen this movie? Will you go to a movie without explosions?
*Piper’s Note: Someone pleeeeeease ask Holmes what constitutes “politely asking.”
**Our Movie Rating System:
- Dud Chinese-manufactured ammo: Stay home and do housework. You’ll have more fun.
- .22 rim fire: Not worth the big screen, but ok to rent.
- .380: Go to the matinée if someone else is paying.
- .38 special: Worth paying for the matinée yourself.
- .357 magnum: Okay to upgrade to prime time if you can stand the crowd.
- .44 magnum: Must see this. Potentially life-altering event.