Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


The Maytag Man would excel as a spy if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is any indication of the job requirements.


I remember the old duff sitting at the ready, waiting like a teenager by the phone for the one call that would somehow tie up his lost ends. Like George Smiley (Gary Oldman) in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, my Maytag Man was an action hero without much action.


Based on a novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is complex, subtle and as impenetrable as last year’s fruit cake. To use the word “dense” to describe this two-hour-and-eight-minute film would be a disservice to other dense objects (a brick of Aunt Doris’ old fruitcake, for example, could be made into useful, understandable things like birdbaths and paperweights.)


Unless you are an avid spy buff, you will get lost during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This will happen despite the fact that this is the slowest moving film in recent memory, a film that never makes a misstep. This marriage of density and dullness is designed into the movie and it’s a tossup whether you’ll give up because you can’t follow the plot or because you’ve fallen asleep.


This is not to say there isn’t something to like about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is a very attractive film, capturing the feel of the burgundy, browns, and terrible oranges of the early 1970s perfectly. (And this might be the last opportunity to show your grandchildren what a pay phone looked like!)


The Cold War tensions are palpable and Oldman, in particular, shines as an example of espionage in decline. Smiley is an anachronism, even in the 1970s. His generation of spies, men who had known each other during World War II, are relics of an earlier age when ideological divisions were easier to uphold. Locked in battle with the soviets, the old guard at the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) lived in a world of bright contrast.


Smiley rose to the top in this environment, a company man and product of the polarity between capitalism and communism. Although he has the corner office at MI-6, both he and his boss (referred to only as “Control” and played by John Hurt) are sent packing after a botched mission in Hungry leaves an agent in enemy hands.


For Smiley, retirement is a series of empty gestures. He boils water for tea, buys new glasses, swims, gets his hair cut. Friendless and alone, cut loose from the job that gave his life meaning, it’s impossible to mistake him for a hero as he shuffles around in his slippers or floats in a public pool with the other geriatrics.


Luckily for him (and us, too), the government calls him in for one last mission. There’s a mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service and Smiley is brought out of mothballs to secretly investigate his old team at MI-6’s headquarters, codenamed “The Circus.” Good old Smiley assembles a team to infiltrate the Circus and restore the good name and reputation of his Cold-War generation.


This is where things slow down and congeal. A top-secret project intended to funnel information back from Russia called “Witchcraft” may (or may not) be a front for double espionage, Smiley’s archenemy may (or may not) be controlling things from behind the iron curtain, and his girl may (or may not) be having an affair with fellow MI-6 superspy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth).


Smiley seems impassive throughout the film and Oldman is so subtle that it is possible miss his performance all together. This is the fundamental problem with nailing a character that’s not interesting to begin with: If you succeed, you capture a zero and if you fail only that failure is interesting.


And that’s the problem with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: There’s a lot of nothing going on. It slouches on, minute after minute, its plot moving in intricate, fundamentally uninteresting or impenetrable circles until you just give up and focus on Oldman playing this putz.


Here is the greatest living actor, playing a guy I wouldn’t want to share a bagel with, you say. This guy could play a dust mite down to a “t,” but it still wouldn’t be interesting.


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