LITTLE ROCK If you remember 1973, then you may remember it much the way it’s presented in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: as a paranoid era where men of middle age and respectable positions attempted fashionably longer hairstyles and held too fast to their secrets.
I remember my own father, who was in the Air Force, wearing sideburns rather than a uniform and disappearing for six or nine months on “missions” he never told us about. We presumed he was in Southeast Asia, for he always returned via Tokyo in a cargo plane laden with duty-free Japanese bicycles, pachinko machines and Hitachi audio cassette players.
At least some of the men in Alfredson’s smoldering but dynamically compressed version of John le Carre’s classic Cold War spy novel have families, but we rarely glimpse them.
You can imagine they have been quarantined, removed from the greater part of their fathers’ and husbands’ lives (and though there are female characters, let’s not pretend that in those days espionage was not a man’s man’s man’s world) in the same way my father compartmentalized us. The work seemed too important; the membrane between the Free World and the Other Evil was permeable and provisional; mutually assured destruction was not only possible but inevitable.
Yet even in those days of heightened alertness, men were men and institutions devolved into cliques and factions, and geopolitics could be trumped by the expedient maneuverings of ambitious bureaucrats. And so it is in the fictionalized British secret service called “the Circus” in the present film - the head of the service, known only as Control (John Hurt), is forced out in an office coup after a disastrous incident in Budapest, Hungary, where one of his top agents, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), is badly wounded. Control resigns, as does his right-hand man, the perspicacious George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and Control’s rival Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) assumes power, bringing with him his favorites Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Alleline’s rise was abetted by a closely held operation codenamed Witchcraft through which he was able to deliver apparently high-grade Soviet intelligence - which he is eager to share with his American allies. But Control and Smiley were deeply suspicious of Witchcraft, and Control in particular was obsessed with the idea that there is a long-term mole at the highest levels of British intelligence. (James Jesus Angleton, who headed the CIA’s counterintelligence section from 1954 to 1975 and was similarly obsessed with double agents, is an obvious model for Control.)
After Control dies, Smiley is approached by a civil servant in charge of the intelligence services who confirms those suspicions and charges Smiley with finding the mole. Since Alleline and his lieutenants are all suspects, Smiley must work surreptitiously. To help him, he brings in Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the head of the service’s “scalp hunters” unit - the disposable operatives who do the agency’s dirtiest work.
There’s more plot than can be comfortably unspooled here - Tom Hardy shows up as the roguish scalp hunter Ricki Tarr, who goes off on a frolic of his own and inadvertently confirms the existence of the mole - and fine British actors like Stephen Graham (best known for his turn as Al Capone in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) show up to deliver a line or two.
What Alfredson (Let the Right One In) does best is convey the rarefied moral atmosphere, a high, cold place above politics and conventional morality inhabited by these spies. It’s a place where aesthetic concerns - the elegance of a given move - might seem as sound a reason to act as ideology or love of country. After all, when you get right down to it, both sides commit atrocities, both sides are monstrous - Smiley tells his Soviet counterpart “there’s as little worth on your side as mine” - why not opt for beauty?
At the center of the film is Oldman’s quiet, calibrated role as Smiley, a man who seems to want nothing more than to disappear into the background. It is a still, clear performance of massive gravity and deliberateness - Oldman (and Alfredson) can freight the act of exchanging eyeglasses with meaning. This is a lovely yet unsettling film, nearly great in its evocation of ever-compromised humanity.
A caveat is in order, however: The necessary abridgments to reduce le Carre’s convoluted story to a movie of just over two hours in length require a kind of rapt attention from moviegoers unfamiliar with the novel (or the fine British miniseries, which starred Alec Guinness and ran nearly five hours). Alfredson has a way of cutting away from a scene just as you feel something is about to happen; he conveys information in subtle ways that place the onus on the audience. We aren’t used to that - and some of us won’t like it.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 88 Cast: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, Stephen Graham, Kathy Burke, John Hurt Director: Tomas Alfredson Rating: R, for violence, sexuality and language Running time: 127 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/06/2012
Print Headline: WAR in the shadows