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!
…(cymbal crash)… We have a new Author of Disorder (or is that Disordered Author?). Please welcome, in your virtual way, Elke Schwarz, a PhD student at the LSE working with Kim Hutchings on Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, biopolitics and political violence.
‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’. Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said. ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough’
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)
The killing of Bin Laden last month has given new fuel to the claim that torture, as a tool in the securitization tool kit of a neo-conservative US government, actually has its place and validity in a liberal society. How absurd this artificial claim is has been highlighted in many a news source but incidents like this keep the so-called Torture Debate alive and well, as the normalising process unfolds. The practice of torture has become much more widely seen as a ‘necessary evil’ available to a liberal State in the pursuit of the protection of its population, if not humanity at large. A recent study conducted by the Red Cross has shown that as many as 59% of the American teenagers surveyed and 51% of adults accept torture as a means to garner information. When tyrannies torture, however, it continues to be a widely condemned affair and the international community shows no shortage of outrage.
Torture as a practice of and within otherwise liberal societies can only enter the realm of the morally permissible if it is detached from its illiberal roots and the discourses and practices allow societal norms to be such that a violation of the human bodies of some serves as a means to ensure the survival and proliferation of others in the pursuit of information finding. And it is precisely this clinical mask of the instrumental dimension of torture as an means of truth-gathering that the torturer’s power can be understood in terms of their insecurities and vulnerabilities. Facilitated by the display of the fiction of power, the ultimate objective of torture is one of domination in times where political power is challenged and status disputed.
It is perhaps not surprising that torture should emerge as a radical example of routines of illegal acts enacted in the most corporeal sense for the alleged securitisation and greater good for the greatest number of ‘good’ people whose sanctity of life has become precarious. In the wake of 9/11 this increased precariousness of American life has served as a warrant for the now infamous ‘gloves off’ approach instituted by Bush Junior’s neo-conservative posse. The problem is: the gloves have stayed off, even with Obama in command.