Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review
by Bret Dorman
A lot of people (aka critics) have been praising Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for being an ‘anti-spy’ film. Yet a lot of people (aka normal movie goers) have been calling it ‘boring’. While I would hate to dismiss the fun, fast paced action spy flick I do admit that only the really good ones get my approval (M:I:4 anyone?). Yes, TTSS is the antithesis of most Hollywood actioners. But it is not good just because of that. The real question is, if a movie is trying to be ‘boring’ or ‘slow’ on purpose, but it excels at doing it… is it still a good movie?
The Story: Smiley (Gary Oldman) must find a mole in The Circus (MI5 HQ). He does so in the most convoluted CYA way possible, including many seemingly pointless tangential storylines and characters. Also, the spies have a Christmas party!
The opening serves as an intro to how quiet the rest of the film will be, especially Oldman’s character. Other people talk over our heads about things using code names that we can’t possibly understand right away and there is Smiley, quietly listening, barely saying a word. This kind of character might be a departure for Oldman’s usual The Professional-esque shouting drug addicts and to his credit he doesn’t have any hint of that here. The character isn’t filled with a ‘quiet rage’ or ‘subtle burning intensity’ (see Drive‘s Diner Scene for that), no, Smiley is simply quiet. It’s not about how he goes about doing the spy stuff in exciting ways (although I do wish there was more ‘action’ in the movie, even if it was soft-core action/suspense like the library heist), instead TTSS highlights Smiley’s actions as he slowly pins the mole down into a position he can not possible get out of. In a world where no one can trust no one, Smiley is faced with the impossible task of finding which of the most highest of MI5 leaders is really working against them. One wrong move, any loophole for the mole to get through, and everything will be for naught.
Which leads us to certain side stories like Ricki Tarr’s semi-romantic fling in some country and Jim Prideaux’s teaching diversion and how it leads to the climax. Tom Hardy at Tarr’s definitely provides the most emotionally investing aspect of the movie, however it leaves off suddenly and therefore remains unrewarding. Mark Strong as Prideaux makes for a reserved, hidden past that is as intriguing as it is lightly funny (the kid who keeps bugging him). TTSS delves into those parts that other movies cover with vague exposition. “Oh yeah, that guy went to Morocco and there was some girl now he’s here and it’s a big piece of the puzzle- oh no! Spies dressed in gorilla suits wearing skiis and throwing dynamite! Let’s shoot our way out of this hotel and drive the hover boat to safety!” The problem is, the movie seems mostly comprised of these small explorations into the nooks and crannies of what makes a “real” spy film so interesting without giving the audience much to cling on to in terms of a “normal” narrative. Since this seems to be the point of the movie, I can’t really hold it against the filmmakers, but it does seem like reading the book or seeing the mini-series would help a lot and perhaps fill out some of the more normal parts.
As I mentioned, there are some thrilling parts and some spy treats, I just wish there was more. I am interested in characters putting corks in their doors so you know if someone has broken into your house or not. Seeing how a character must sneak a book out of a library that you are NOT supposed to sneak books out of is exciting. Seeing the ‘chambers’ in The Circus is cool even though they are never explained. The final reveal of who the mole is and that Smiley only draws a gun when absolutely necessary and hopes to never use it is badass. I don’t mind a spy movie not having a single shoot out but I want it to have more spying.
The three possible traitors, Alleline, Haydon, and Esterhase (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, and David Dencik respectively) play their parts distantly and the movie isn’t about exploring them, so much as it is exploring their actions and the cause/effects of certain decisions. In that sense, the viewer feels just as distant from Smiley as these three. We aren’t allowed to see his thought process, but are allowed to watch him make it. These characters might feel cold and distant, like shells just existing to get from one plot point to another (one of my complaints about Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) but is that not the point. The camera does not show these actors as characters, but rather their mysterious actions as puzzle pieces. Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbach) plays an almost audience cypher who is somewhat new to the spy world, has no idea why he is doing things half the time, but sticks close to Smiley and watches how he works.
You might be able to call the movie boring, but if you pay even the slightest attention you can’t say it doesn’t have a handful of stylish moments. Smiley interviewing a character on a runway while he begs for his life (socially, politically, and literally) and a plane lands in the background threatening his deportation had me silently muttering “…cool…” and feeding my attention span a bit further. Perhaps the best scene in the movie is when Smiley reflects on a meeting he once had a long time ago with the allusive Karla and the scene is shot not through flash back or cool split screen, but Oldman creating an imaginary version that almost manifests itself on screen and most certainly in our imagination.
In Conclusion, yes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tries to be something that is hard to follow, quietly cool, and a mostly anti-climactic, but since it accomplishes that and does so with a keen eye for cold war era coolness I can’t hold any of it against the film. I can say, having not read the book or seen the British mini-series that maybe its runtime of 2 hours and 7 minutes is a little short? I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time with the movie if it means I don’t have to read an entire book (the horror. the horror!) although maybe one day I’ll thumb through it…
Final Grade: B