Seeing Straight: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Review with Plot Spoilers)
Towards the end of the British spy drama Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a reference is made to the idea that the film's protagonist George Smiley could not "see straight." In fact, in a movie which closes with this reference and which features an early scene of Smiley getting fitted for new glasses, the motif of seeing straight runs throughout. Along the way, the movie also argues that the characters in power in the British government during the cold war could not see that what they thought was "gold" was actually "shit."
It’s nice to have a film intelligently laying out a central and consistent theme without beating you over the head with its heavy import. That’s one of the really great things about this movie. It’s smart and subtle--but not trying to be too clever. The resolution to the spy drama seems fitting, as if the producers expect the audience to know all along who the real culprit is. In fact, Smiley even suggests that key figures knew “deep down” who the real Russian mole was amongst the small group of highly-placed MI6 agents.
Tinker, Tailor isn’t afraid that its audience will be bored by its deliberate pacing; and its producers don’t attempt to sell you a mind-boggling twist at the end (a la Usual Suspects) to prove that they are more crafty than their viewers. Instead, the movie makes sense as it tries to make sense of a chaotic time, as it tries to make sense of treachery and two-facedness of friends, lovers, and countrymen. The movie doesn’t seem to mind that it might lose viewers to the ridiculously hyper Sherlock Holmes sequel which exhausted me even with just the previews.
Of course we all know that Tinker, Tailor will have the last laugh come Oscar nominations time since Gary Oldman is already being talked about as a contender. Oldman is great, but this movie really is an ensemble effort—as so many major British movies have been in the past decade (like, for instance, Gosford Park). Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones all are terrific. All you needed was to add Helen Mirren and Judi Dench to make this a truly unforgettable cast. (Since those additions would have taken away some of the realism the movie was going for, I’m okay with the lack of female stars…)
But, yes, Gary Oldman is indeed terrific. If your last peek at him was as Sirius in the Harry Potter franchise, you are in for a disorienting first few minutes since his wavy dark Romantic poet locks are replaced by slicked-back straight gray hair. He doesn’t talk for the first 15 minutes of so, but he is tremendously expressive nevertheless. After a prologue which depicts a tragic 1973 Budapest mission involving another agent, the Control (director of a small group of elite MI6 agents) is announcing his inevitable departure. Another agent asks, “What about Smiley?” When Control responds, “He’s coming with me,” Oldman’s Smiley looks slightly startled--after all, as we discover later, he was in Berlin and had nothing to do with the botched mission--but he reverts to mild resignation. That momentary flicker of emotion though tells us a lot about this man who is a covert spy but is still an emotional human being, able to be surprised and disappointed but who will still supply the stiff upper-lip stoicism demanded of him by his profession, his gender, and by his cultural heritage.
The film doesn’t prefer the stoicism though. It encourages us to feel roused with righteous anger when Smiley doesn’t mince words as he finally accuses his governmental superiors of being “greedy” and “lazy.” Conversely, I hoped that Smiley felt profound regret when he had to convince someone to carry out a risky mission with the quid pro quo of a possible return of an abducted woman. When asked if the woman could be returned, a Smiley who already knows of her demise still responds, but perhaps with infinitesimal pause and emphasis on the last word?: “I will try my utmost.”
While the very final shots of the movie are almost jarringly uplifting, with Smiley apparently reunited with his errant wife and reinstalled (and likely promoted) in a job he was forced out of at the beginning of the movie, the scenes directly preceding these undercut the happy ending surrounding Smiley. We have enough images of betrayal, unrequited love, desolation, and loneliness to invite audience discomfort with Smiley’s reversal of fortune—especially since we understand that Smiley and his job are at least partly responsible for the heartache that others experience at the end of the film. Tinker, Tailor almost seems to be telling us that there are very few winners, since, as we now know better, all is not fair in love and war.