Know this: *great clunking spoilers ahead*.
The critical praise heaped on Tomas Alfredson’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy reflects more than the hunger of intelligent audiences for post-Inception thrillers. Nor can it be explained merely by the excessive parade of grand thesps (Benedict Cumberbatch and the under-rated Stephen Graham both wasted, the former with a sub-Sherlock performance and the latter with a paper-thin bit-part, given historical fidelity by bad hair alone). Its visual and affective qualities are seductive and occasionally beautiful, but then so is its submerged vision of espionage and realpolitik.
The antithesis of Bond and Bourne, Tinker, Tailor offers up the almost forgotten Cold War as the stage for its intrigues. Although the voices are softer and the principals older, there is a more deadly game afoot. As Kermode comments, there will be large swathes of the audience who don’t know the political context at all. Not that it matters, since the detail (Hungary, the parallels with Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt et al.) are but window-dressing for the appeal of George Smiley (silent, menacing, magnificent Gary Oldman). Contra the brashness of post-9/11 global political allegory-fictions, we are gently ushered into an epic game of chess, played by men. Men whose tools are wit, logic and cunning. Men from an analog age who use little pieces of card to alert them to potential break-ins.
Our contemporary operatives, even those of clear intellect and cunning are, like Bob Barnes in Syriana, always eventually compelled to revert to Hollywood expectations (explosions, gun fights, fisticuffs) to bring matters to their appropriate climax. Not in Tinker, Tailor. At one stage Smiley and co. require small handguns but, although drawn, they are never used. Barring the quasi-orgasmic final exchange between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux, our other vivid encounters with slaughter and disembowelment are after the fact, still, frozen scenes, crowned by flies. As if painted by Goya. We gulp and turn away, but what beautiful mutilations!
And so Tinker, Tailor effects a certain nostalgia. At its surface, it tells a story of almost uncompromising duplicity (although, as Omar commented, wouldn’t it be the most satisfactory twist if Smiley was the mole after all?). There are no grand patriots apparent here, no chest-thumping for state and nation. In one scene (inserted by Alfredson but absent from the book) the collected employees of ‘the Circus’ (MI6) sing the Soviet national anthem to a Santa Claus wearing a Lenin mask. So people with an appropriate sense of the ironic and the ridiculous then. True, there is a kind of loyalty among the lower ranks, but it is characterised not by ideological vigour but by the quiet efficiency of the British Civil Service.
In spite of this putative disenchantment with reasons of state, there is a more subtle romanticism at play in Tinker, Tailor‘s political imaginary. For one, the Circus has not always been so hollowed out. As Connie Sachs reminisces to Smiley, “Englishmen could be proud then” (tellingly excised are the preceding lines from an older incarnation: “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves“). Not the kind of cultural malaise that could inspire via Jack Bauer, nor that which would substitute the craft of espionage with the gaudy baubles of techno-war and shock and awe. Not, in other words, like our American cousins. Instead, a burden of disappointment, of hands sadly, but necessarily, bloody with political realities. No way out. The weight borne by men, even as they see through the façade presented for mass entertainment and supplication. A more rarified kind of spy. A realpolitik of the mind, one you could even enjoy in an appropriately under-stated way, the whiskey clinking in your glass, the pall of smoke, the reports in simple manilla folders, the everyday procedures of care and security, the cautious collegiality, the inner distance from your multiple selves. A serious game.
This disavowed duty becomes more evident as Tinker, Tailor works on the inner lives of its players. For all their hyper rationalism, its would-be Machiavellis are moved, beneath their layers of pretence, by near child-like longings. Smiley, of course, for his ‘Ann’, her face always obscured to us (a psychoanalytically telling point in itself), her gift to him a locus of such emotional resonance that it may even be the unintended source for all that goes wrong after he surrenders it to Karla. Ricki Tarr, with his love-at-first-sight infatuation, one for which he will risk his life and willingly be used as a pawn. Esterhase, almost comically fearful of being sent back to Hungary, his mass of training and skill giving way like so much paper tissue at the lightest of suggestive threats from Smiley. Jim Prideaux, the loyal loner, who goes on a secret mission out of ‘duty’ despite knowing that there is a murderous risk in doing so (and knowing of Bill Haydon’s divided loyalties). Haydon himself, who betrays for motives beyond the space of reasons, namely that he has come to dislike the aesthetic of the West. The gay playboy whose charm covers for a void where political conviction or rational self-interest should reside.
In The Loop, by contrast, offers a far bleaker account of realpolitik. Where Tinker, Tailor smuggles its seductions in a narrative of moral vacuity, In The Loop covers its disgust in humour. The precipice of war is, if anything, more threatening, but those involved are, without exception, inadequate to their historical moment. The parameters are set not by tank manoeuvres, long-gestating intrigues or the rivalry between ideological visions, but by Blairite bland-speak, the exigencies of public relations and the personal rivalries of Ministers and their lackeys.
Although a scenario much more dependent on the question of information and who controls it, Smiley and his kind are conspicuous by their absence from the corridors of In The Loop. The decisive intelligence reports are cobbled together by interns, party hacks and minor political advisers. Instead of the tight intrigues of five chiefs in a padded room-within-a-room, we get tables packed with ‘room meat’, bureaucratic collectives who want to be near the celebrity and the action. Malcolm Tucker is briefed by 22-year olds while plans to prevent mass slaughter are undone by subsiding constituency walls. The decision space is absent that specialised knowledge required (so we imagine) for the decisive implementation of national interest. Toby, Simon Foster, Chad, even Malcolm, are full of the discourse of power, but without the experience and embodiment of any real contest. The comedic inversions of Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War.
Gust is, like Gandolfini’s General Miller in In The Loop, a figure both of stark humour and crucial analysis, foreshadowing what is to come. Like court jesters, both convey a truth avoided by those removed from realities of death. For Gust, it is that history is lubricated by blood and will not conform to your plans for it; for Miller, that the political fantasies of the democratic peace require more slaughter, and more treasure, than the chicken-hawks in power can grasp. Yet it is Avrakotos who cuts the more beguiling figure, and who stands as the brash American counterpart to Smiley. One who understands how it is that the world turns, and who can show you the place from where to move it.
There is never any question in Tinker, Tailor of the aptitude of our anti-heroes. Disillusioned, yes, but without doubt the best and the brightest. Fluent in the many dialects and manners of their Cold War battlegrounds, smarter than their political masters, abundant in education, products of a properly functioning class system even as they go astray. And although we bear witness to the degradation of official roles and official rationales, every gesture remains saturated with meaning. Smiley’s mistake in allowing Karla to take his engraved lighter being the most prominent example. Such a small thing, but with such consequences. Recalling that encounter in the best monologue of the film, Smiley comments that every fanaticism hides a deep doubt. What he doesn’t add is that the ephemera of doubt and duplicity themselves cover for the required sacrifice to reasons of state. As if by their very falsity they authorise the most brutal of means, even once their ideological ends are understood as a filthy sham.