If you remember the Cold War and want to feel superannuated, go see the lush 2011 film adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The performances are superb – Gary Oldman as George Smiley immediately makes you forget even Alec Guinness – and the script and staging range from not overly annoying to inspired.
But in the theater where I saw it, the quiet, understated delivery of the actors caused an older gentleman in the audience to shout, “Turn up the damn volume!” (He was shushed by his embarrassed wife.) The cast does affect a certain amount of mumbling and whispering, which apparently forms an important part of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s concept for remaining true to le Carré’s trademark atmospherics. (It could also be that his artistic hero is Ingmar Bergman; I haven’t seen any of Alfredson’s Swedish films.)
This little audience-reaction vignette sums up beautifully the movie’s basic disconnect. Tinker works very hard to be true to le Carré, whose classic Cold War spy novels were contemplative and brooding, generous and patient. Le Carré is a writer of unequalled talent in his sphere, giving his name to an enduring, identifiable mood about the fictional business of international espionage. But for that mood to grip an audience’s short hairs when the story is told on screen, something more is needed than a faithful rendition of le Carré’s style. What is needed is a Cold War audience. What is needed is the Cold War.
Le Carré didn’t do cinema-ready chase scenes in his Cold War spy novels. He isn’t a mystery writer or a spinner of fantastic tales about resurgent Nazi cabals or Nazi breeding programs in Latin America. His fascination has been with character, moral decisions, and the tension between professionalism and human weakness.
Frederick Forsythe, by contrast, another great action-fiction writer from the same era, gave his readers a sort of documentary insight into spycraft, constructing stories around criminal plots, suspense, and danger. Robert Ludlum, for his part, built his name on fast-paced action, stock characters, shocks and surprise twists. Ludlum’s Bourne series has been translated effortlessly into a modern franchise, and the film adaptation of Forsythe’s Day of the Jackal, released in 1971, holds up for 21st century audiences who have barely heard of Charles De Gaulle, because the story is about the respective crafts of assassination-for-hire and police sleuthing. When the tale was reset in the United States for the 1997 Bruce Willis vehicle The Jackal, it worked as a film of its own because the story is a generic classic: rumpled, wily law enforcement official pursues preternaturally brilliant international criminal.
But le Carré was the Greek-tragedy hymner of Spies in the Cold War. His genius was to sketch stories against the background of the common angst, fears, and assumptions of that strange, twilight conflict. He didn’t have to explain why a fanatical Soviet spymaster who had never heard of compunction was a figure both frightening and fascinating – because everyone knew why. The tanks that rolled into capital cities in Eastern Europe, the nuclear weapons that were pointed at everyone in the northern hemisphere 24/7, the grainy videos of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, eyes shadowed under their Russian-style swaddlings, the mental water-torture of endless coups and insurrections and wars – Soviet spymasters were connected with these lurking threats, these things that could actually hurt us. These things that could end life as we knew it.
The necessary but somewhat ironic outcome of winning the Cold War has been that we no longer viscerally understand le Carré’s world without having it explained to us. What Soviet communism was in the Cold War world is something that does not even exist today. We have no common perception now of a threat figure like the storied Soviet spymaster, because there is no threat like the predatory Soviet Union.
The specific threat environment within which the humans do their shabby maneuvering is a surprisingly important component in a le Carré tale. A diabolical plot, car-chase, or shoot-out can be reset almost anywhere, but the towering existential threat and moral exhaustion of the Cold War are sui generis. Without a prior sense of them in the hearts of the audience, the conflict at the core of Tinker’s narrative comes off as flat and uncompelling. Ho-hum, we think. Another bunch of cynical spies, unable to trust each other. And why is this lumbering story of teletype messages and old paper files moving along in such a jerky fashion?
The 1979 TV adaptation of Tinker, featuring Alec Guinness as Smiley, did less homage to le Carré’s style, but it fit squarely within the cultural expectations of Cold War fiction, and in that way was less self-conscious than the 2011 movie. It was suited to its time, with Guinness as a memorable Smiley.
But Oldman is a wonderful George Smiley in his own right. If there are more adaptations of Smiley novels, I predict that all future performances will be compared to his. Oldman hits off le Carré’s ordinary, understatedly noble functionary perfectly. He carries the movie, which I think would otherwise be rather tedious and inexplicably dour for under-40 audiences with no tribal memory of the Cold War. Virtually all the performances are excellent, although some of the actors, like the wonderfully effulgent Ciaran Hinds, have too little to do. Hinds plays Roy Bland, one of the top British spy leaders suspected of being a mole, and manages with just a few close-ups to keep those who don’t already know the story interested in the possibilities of his guilt.
Tom Hardy (Inception, The Take), as lower-class thug Ricky Tarr, almost steals the movie out from under the tremendous older cast. He manages to convey a feral audacity without being coy or grating. Other stand-outs are Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s 2010 Sherlock Holmes) as Smiley’s sidekick Peter Guillam, and Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, The Young Victoria) as Jim Prideaux. The Prideaux character is shortchanged somewhat in the film, but Strong grabs attention for it anyway.
One of the most poignant moments of the story occurs when Prideaux – after being sneaked back into Britain from his supposed assassination in Hungary – finds himself in a rural classroom with a group of young students. An owl emerges like a wild dervish from the schoolroom’s chimney, precipitating an explosion of feathers and char over the assembled children. Prideaux, who was tortured by the KGB before he was returned to the Brits, kills the bird quickly and professionally with a stick, administering one deadly, jolting whack that leaves the owl emitting terrible cries in its death throes on the classroom floor.
We are meant to see in this jarring vignette the seared conscience of a beaten-down, used-up spy – and back when spies seemed terribly necessary, in a world rent by a grotesque ideology married to weapons of global destruction, the irony and sorrow of such a moment had a power to pierce the heart.
But more heart-rending today is the fact that they no longer do. We may appreciate the owl’s scene as a narrative device, but it doesn’t make us secretly long to hug a spy for all the moral sacrifices he makes to keep us safe. We simply don’t live in a world anymore in which his services seem indispensable, or like the center ring of a global struggle for civilization.
It is this passing of an era that does in Colin Firth’s turn as Bill Haydon, another of the potential moles among the senior leadership of the British spy service. Firth’s performance is terrific – in his last scene with Oldman you can hardly bear to look at him – but the elephant in the room is the stark recognition that it just doesn’t matter anymore. Without the Cold War context – of politics, of ideology, of threats to the future of mankind and to our very existence – the hubris and manipulation and cynicism and betrayal look small and pathetic, like something way too inconsequential to build a story around.
I suspect that today’s generations will have an existential-conflict narrative of their own soon enough. We who remember every assumption and slogan of the Cold War don’t by any means wish it back. But we are in a peculiar hiatus now from the civilizational compulsions that attend a life-and-death struggle, and nothing – no fiction, no poetry, no art – that requires a context of that kind to grip our minds and hearts has a hope of tasting the way it once did. For such a savor, we will have to await the next brush with existential brinkmanship.
Addendum: For more poignant Cold War reminiscing, be sure to check out Rick Richman’s superb review of The Iron Lady, the late-2011 indie film in which Meryl Streep portrays Margaret Thatcher. Rick makes the case that, whatever the narrative intentions of the film’s producers, the movie’s result is to spotlight the remarkable strength, grace, and admirable quality of Thatcher’s character and legacy. If I were to sum up Rick’s thesis, I would put it this way: No matter what you try to say about Margaret Thatcher, she’s going to have the last word.