The movie’s star, Gary Oldman, studies us through stylish 1970s spectacles, adjusting them with a stylishly leather-gloved hand. Printed below his left eye are words: “The enemy is within.” We are being sold some combination of nostalgia and cynicism. Think of the movie’s poster as a spy’s cover that’s already been blown. No intelligence here.
British author John le Carré answered James Bond fantasy with his realistic sense of class politics and moral disillusionment in a faded empire. His 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, filled six hours when the BBC adapted it for television. In this version, a mere two hours are supposed to convey agent George Smiley’s search for a Soviet mole among his colleagues at MI6, or “the Circus.” Because the English actors look distinctive, you can almost follow the plot, beginning with Mark Strong as a fellow agent who gets ambushed in Budapest. Before we know anything about the guy, we’re expected to fear for his life because the film’s director, Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), turns up the earthquake sound effects.
Like many young boys, Alfredson seems enamored with the movies of David Fincher, in which pale, paranoid men discover horrible corpses, and all the politics and emotions of adult life have conveniently taken place off camera. This English spy version is especially disingenuous. Again, like a young boy, we’re supposed to be impressed by the men’s cool emotional repression, but also impressed with ourselves for leading happier lives than theirs. Their personal history together is summarized in flashback rather than being explored in drama and decors we can really feel.
The camera turns Oldman’s Smiley into a monster as he confesses his wavering faith in the West, complete with a reference to American torture. When the traitor is unmasked, he explains to Smiley: “I had to pick a side, George. It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.” In the book, Smiley hides his mixed feelings about this betrayal as a social tragedy, but the movie excludes them altogether. There’s more subtlety in Smiley’s boss (John Hurt), who bellows resentment at a Scottish rival who favors America: “Your bloody Yanks!” “You penny-pinching Scot!” But most details of class and nationalism get dropped. Does the filmmaker realize the irony of his own immoral aesthetics? He’s more interested in those stylish glasses Smiley wears, or the vintage burger joint where he might have eaten, or the way a bullet can puncture a man’s cheek like a gruesome tear. That image is part of the “serious” final montage, with a maudlin, homosexual love-death, and a conflicted patriot becoming the Godfather. Unserious disco music turns it into a cartoon about other people, instead of the painful choices we all face. R.
SEE IT: 23 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens Friday, Dec. 23, at Fox Tower.