Jul 16, 2012
Spy vs Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an old-fashioned spy thriller. I mean, not just Hunt for Red October old-fashioned. I mean really old-fashioned. Set in 1973, it has virtually none of the trapping of a modern spy film. It was kind of hard for my brain to transition to the different environment. There were no cell phones, no computers, no surveillance cameras on every corner. Instead, the spies used pay phones and read paper briefings. Rather than using high-powered assault rifles, homemade bombs, and specialized training these spies relied on knives, pistols, and hunting rifles. But their biggest weapon was their words.
, one agent was broken through enemy interrogation and he sold out all the operatives in an area. He asked if they had gotten out okay, only to find that his words had betrayed every one of them. Words had meaning.
I had seen in several reviews of the film that the dialogue was critical and was hard to follow. I understand why people would say that. I had to have my television's volume about fifty percent higher than normal just to catch everything (which made for a shock when a pistol would go off). I don't think the movie itself was to blame. Rather, it is more a commentary on how we, as moviegoers, have become so accustomed to noise. That is where there is the greatest contrast between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and modern spy offerings. When I think of the modern spy genre, immediately I think of the Bourne series. It also includes the newer Bond movies, shows like Burn Notice and Covert Affairs, and films like Salt or Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Mission: Impossible. In these stories, the modern spy is still brilliant and deductive. But they also are like real-life superheroes.
Think about Jason Bourne or Michael Westen. They know how to use every weapon: knives of all sizes, grenade launchers, rail guns. They are trained in all sorts of combat - from Asian martial arts to parkour. They are military geniuses. In addition, they are all super sexy and use seduction as a common technique. They also have super spidey senses, able to tell if the smallest item is moved or if a person breathes two rooms away. Words are not as important as trickery and acting. Technology is deeply interwoven into the modern spy's repertoire. He or she must be able to hack into any computer, clone drives, nullify unbelievably intricate security systems, hijack the local network of cameras, and edit videos on the fly.
Looking at the difference between the Bourne series and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an interesting exercise. Both films are very good. They are well written and executed. They attract amazing casts. Think about the names that were in those films. The Bourne films have Oscar and Golden Globe nominees and winners galore. Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Chris Cooper, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Clive Owen, Scott Glenn, and Brian Cox all have acting hardware on their shelves. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can easily match that roster (as well as show their apparent affinity for grabbing Harry Potter cast members. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Toby Jones all have been acknowledged by those groups - while other cast members Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong will almost assuredly be nominated at some point in the near future.
Interestingly, they both tell the tales of a spy disillusioned by their role and their leaders. It is pretty common for modern American cinema to wallow in the anti-establishment end of the pond. Most Americans don't trust their government and believe there are conspiracies afoot. So it is only natural for the modern brilliant spy to uncover the nefarious plots. Apparently a few decades back, the British intelligence community was as highly regarded as a circa 1990s American automobile. So the more alert operatives in that group were hitting the same place that modern US operatives are now. The themes of betrayal, corruption, misguided methods, and blind ambition run through both works. For all of their similarities, though, these two examples go about things in a completely different way.
Jason Bourne is a man of few words. But he is a man of action. Gary Oldman's George Smiley is also a man of few words - at first. I clocked it last night. Even though he was in virtually every scene in the first part of the movie, Smiley didn't talk until the 18 minute mark. At that point, he mostly spoke in minor phrases, spending most of his time thinking, analyzing, and plotting. As the movie progressed, though, Smiley spoke more and more. Bourne, as the movies progressed, would demonstrate his physical brilliance in fending off increasingly dangerous attacks. Smiley showed his mental brilliance as he maneuvered through the web of lies all around him. Instead of breaking out into violence, he wielded his words like a sword - both to inspire loyalty from those close to him and to strike fear into those plotting against him. He pulled a gun once, but never actually USED a weapon. A far cry from a modern spy.
There were no car chases, no explosions. There were few, if any, fight scenes. There was violence. It was crude and awful - which made it all the more shocking. So many times in modern action movies, people die and property gets destroyed at such a rate that we rarely blink an eye when someone gets offed. In fact, going into a film like Bourne, we expect that two-thirds of the people will probably end up dead. I kept waiting for the wholesale clearing house scene in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It never happened. Each death that was shown was brutal and affecting. It really brings home the fact that taking a life weighs on a person. You could see that weight etched on the faces of each person. The younger spies were overwhelmed by the pain of loss as they experienced it for the first time. The older spies had a weary look of acceptance, but the pain didn't disappear.
Another example of this genre of film would be The Good Shepherd. It was a modern film that looked at the beginning of the CIA. Matt Damon played another word-sparing spy. But this time it was in a different world. Gone were the images of Damon beating a man up with a magazine and blowing up an apartment complex with a microwave. The spy in Shepherd was coldly calculating. I could actually see that character growing up into Oldman's George Smiley. They were cut from the same cloth and spies of a similar era.
I think both types of movies have their place. I love sitting back and watching Michael Westen blow up half of Miami without any consequences. It is fun. Westen is brilliant and talented. So is Jason Bourne. I am excited about Bourne Legacy. I loved the first three movies. They are exciting and riveting. But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a different kind of movie. It is slow and thoughtful. It requires the viewer and the spy to pay attention to everything. There is nothing loud and explosive to distract and thrill. Instead there is just the enjoyment of watching a master at work.
Part of that mastery is found in Gary Oldman's portrayal of the elder spy. Personally, I think Oldman is one of the most brilliant actors out there. He is a complete chameleon. He makes every role his own to the point that you can't imagine anyone else being cast. JFK's Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula's vampire prince, Fifth Element's wacko Zorg, Harry Potter's Sirius Black - even Batman's Commissioner Gordon. (I am a massive Batman fan and when I heard Oldman was cast as Gordon, I just about wet myself with excitement.) I have always found it more difficult for actors to portray a quiet character than a loud one. I am nowhere near as impressed by Al Pacino's Scent of a Woman or Oceans Thirteen performance as a I am by his Godfather or Insomnia ones. I think actors love to portray over-the-top characters because they are so showy and noticeable. It is easy to overlook someone quiet and thoughtful. But the ability to imbue that person with layers and depth takes work. You can't rely on a big speech to flesh out your character. It is in a glance or a sigh. That actually is also why I think Matt Damon is such a good actor. His Jason Bourne and Good Shepherd character both carried that ability to say enough by saying nothing at all.
That all being said, I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was tense and engaging. I loved the performances by everyone - especially Oldman, Tom Hardy (brilliant in its restraint) and Cumberbatch. [Side note: Tomorrow's post will deal more with him as I compare the Sherlock Holmes movies with the BBC Sherlock show. Spoiler alert: I think Cumberbatch is a brilliant megastar on the rise.] I appreciate a movie that make me think and doesn't rely on action sequences all the time. It was a throwback, which I appreciate from time to time. Maybe its because I remember the era the movie was set in, when spies were these mysterious characters in an invisible war instead of superheros fighting nothing in particular.