Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a European film directed by a highly regarded Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, The Snowman). It is a cinematic adaptation of the novel of the same name written by John le Carré, who has been the standard bearer of espionage fiction for decades. It boasts the crème-de-la crème of contemporary British actors and a quality production to match. In short, despite the modest publicity, this is one of the most ambitious cinematic projects to date with so much promise. Yet, quite astonishingly, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy manages to exceed expectations in every possible way. It is not only the best espionage film ever made: it is a subtle yet brilliant study on human fallibility. By carefully reviewing this film, despite the reassuring ending, one should gain a sobering insight into how things must fail due to the constitutive paradox regarding the nature of human agency. And, as le Carré knows all too well, the cost of failure in the context of international politics and espionage in the modern world is potentially, and quite realistically, catastrophic.

The film tells a fictional account of a crisis within the British intelligence community during the height of the Cold War. It follows a retired MI-6 officer, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who has been tasked with uncovering one or more moles implanted by the KGB at the highest level of British Intelligence. In the wake of a disastrous operation in Budapest, which resulted in the loss of a field officer, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the MI-6 chief, Control (John Hurt), and the second in command, Smiley, were forced out of the Circus, that is, the fictional codename for MI-6 headquarters. After Control’s mysterious death, Smiley is summoned by the Cabinet Office under-secretary, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), who persuades Smiley to lead a covert counter-intelligence operation against the Circus, which is now led by three ambitious intelligence officers: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and Roy Bland (Ciaràn Hind), with the assistance of Toby Esterhaase (David Dencik), a Hungarian defector originally recruited by Control himself. These men have been running a strictly classified operation codenamed ‘Witchcraft’, whose exact details have been inaccessible even to the most senior members of the MI-6 on the pretext of stemming a succession of high-profile leaks that had battered the reputation of the Circus of late. A brain child of Alleline, ‘Witchcraft’ has been a startling success for the British: it has begun to provide one valuable piece of intelligence after another. Amazingly, the members of this operation are allowed to directly report to the Prime Minister, thereby effectively undercutting the authority of Control. Despite ‘Witchcraft’ being the cause of much optimism for the British, who desperately wish to regain the trust of their ‘American cousins’, upon receiving a call from Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a field operator on the run who claims to have evidence of Soviet collusion at the top of the Circus, Lacon begins to suspect that Control was right after all: there is at least one mole operating at the highest level of British intelligence, and he begins to doubt the legitimacy of this greatly successful yet completely unaccountable project whose codename happens to be highly suggestive of being double-edged. As Smiley and his former subordinate — Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who still serves in MI-6 as a highly regarded junior intelligence officer — covertly investigate the new leaders of the Circus and their clandestine project, they learn a sobering truth: Control suspected every one of his senior intelligence officers, including Smiley. In the midst of a seemingly never ending series of doubts and questions, Tarr suddenly appears at Smiley’s door. He states that, in exchange for the safety of his source and lover, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), he is willing to help expose the mole.

As you might have guessed, the story is fairly deep and complex. This is by no means another forgettable ‘spy flick’ which is vexingly over-saturated with juvenile devices to ‘entertain’. Whilst Alfredson is known for his mastery of bone-chilling violence that instills a sense of stark and inconsolable isolation, there is notable focus away from the actual act of violence in this film. Aside from a few brief instances, the cinema represents the terrifying consequences of violence without showing the actual deed, thereby meaningfully presenting the truth about violence. This is a welcome relief from the over-reliance on enthusiastically choreographed violent actions to ‘please and entertain’. This is a proper cinema, one of which in every moment there is a nuance to be savoured. Whilst all aspects of this masterpiece deserve utmost praise, two components really stand out: acting and the original novel. Together, these two components enables the Swede to realise his prodigious vision: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an exceptional film that expresses how it feels to be, and treated to be, a shadow (This is a subject that requires a dedicated article, hence I shall not go any further with it in this article). Whilst both the actors and the novel’s author are highly respected, and thus there is no need to emphasise their greatness, we have not yet sufficiently articulated how exactly and why they are exceptional in the first place. Hence I wish to devote some space in an attempt to analyse how acting and the original story contribute to the success of the film. Firstly, there is no doubt that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has brought the best British ensemble available for the roles: it is abundantly clear that securing the services of these performers was the most important factor in realising this cinema. To depict the world shrouded with ambiguity, suspicion, fear, and paranoia, with every slight glance and gesture bearing full of meaning, we need actors who are capable of the subtlest of subtleties. In this precise sense, the world of real espionage, insightfully represented by le Carré’s fiction, must be played out on the set like a game of positional chess at its best, as demonstrated by the likes of Anatoly Karpov: in such a game, the Russian benignly manoeuvres his pieces without posing any apparent threats, only for his opponent to suddenly realise the totality of their deadly effect when it is too late. In the story, the mole outfoxes the mother of all British spooks, Control, to take over the Circus. And Smiley now must outmanoeuvre the faceless opponent to take back the thread of the game. Before making his decisive move, however, Smiley must patiently and quietly accumulate seemingly harmless advantages without attracting attention to himself, for he knows that he is, ultimately, just another piece in a larger scheme of things.

The ensemble cast impresses to the highest degree by bringing the dangerous, and at times tragic, complexity of human psychology to life. Whilst every actor in this excellent drama is praiseworthy, if not for the sheer genius of the lead actor, nothing would have come of it. Gary Oldman has proven his mettle and talent for so many years, yet he achieves something quite rare as Smiley: being absolutely captivating as someone ‘breathtakingly ordinary’. Known for his ‘big acting’ style, which he cultivated through many years doing theatre, Oldman has mesmerised audiences with his dramatic portrayal of a set of characters as diverse as the famed punk rocker Syd Vicious, Francis Ford Coppola’s Count Dracula, sinister NYPD detective Norman Stansfield (Léon: The Professional), and Sir Winston Churchill (The Darkest Hour), to name a few. Whilst his ability to melt into a given character is well-known, what Oldman achieves with the role of George Smiley is quite extraordinary: he becomes someone who is completely forgettable while mesmerising the audience with nearly imperceptible changes he demonstrates on the set. Given the indefinable nature of his role, George Smiley, what Oldman achieves here is beyond the reach of method acting: method acting is based on effective profiling of a given role, yet the very essence of Smiley defies such a forced, and rather clumsy, categorisation. He is a man without qualities, whose indefinability helps him to carry out his duties. He is apolitical, has no faith, and has denied himself the possibility of real human relationships. In the world of espionage, there is no possibility of intimacy, for intimacy presupposes a certain degree of trust in one another. Yet, whilst the concept of belief in another human being runs against the very notion of espionage, it is paradoxically central to it: without trusting someone, suspecting the ‘Other’ cannot be done. Yet, given the arbitrary nature of the lines dividing the two categories, trust and suspicions are neither unconditional nor mutually exclusive. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ably demonstrates that this tension applies to all human relations, and thus, inspecting the world of espionage must teach us something about the basic human condition: the constant and unresolvable tension between the opposites that make us who we are. As an expert observer of this precarious dynamics, Smiley is someone impossible to know, and equally, Smiley must live with the fact which Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne, The Miller’s Crossing) likes to repeat: No one knows anyone; not that well. From the very beginning of the film, it is clear that something is amiss at his household: Smiley cuts a lonely figure with a deep sense of loss. For the majority of the film, we know nothing about the domestic drama that precedes the story, yet Oldman and Alfredson make it clear that Smiley has recently suffered a devastating disappointment regarding his marriage. Despite his power of observation and intelligence, he could not predict or prevent the misfortune. Whilst the parallel between his personal life and the world at large is striking, the implications of such understanding are far more dangerous in the world of espionage. To survive and excel in such a context, Smiley has adopted an impenetrable ambiguity that renders him completely mundane in appearance. To portray such a personality, an actor must possess uncanny instinct to be someone other than oneself in order to demonstrate just how extraordinary his character’s ordinariness is. Hence what Oldman achieves as Smiley must be recognised as the inspired work of a gifted actor of the highest order.

The quality of the film also rests upon le Carré’s original novel. Le Carré, born David John Moore Cornwell, brings his real experience in the world of espionage to his fictional work. Like his great predecessor, Graham Greene, he worked for MI-6 in various capacities for many years. Yet, unlike Greene, the world of secrecy and paranoia was painfully familiar to him long before he joined the service. He knew no mother, and he wished the same to be the case with his father: he paid for his father’s funeral yet declined to attend it. Le Carré’s mother, Charlotte, abandoned the family when he was only five years old. His father, ‘Ronnie’ Cornwell, was a member of London’s criminal underworld. A pathological lier, he was a close associate of the notorious Kray twins. Ronnie was a professional con artist, and his schemes landed him in jail at least once. Having to grow up in such a dysfunctional environment taught le Carré lessons from which he later benefited as a spook: an acute awareness of the indeterminability of human character and the precarious nature of human relations. In short, the complex web of human fallibility that fosters fear, suspicion, paranoia, and betrayals is where he felt ‘at home’. Le Carré’s troubled upbringing adds a personal touch, a decidedly poignant one, to his stories about the shadowy figures in the world of deadly intrigues. Having known no human relations that felt loving and secure in his early life, the dry and icy isolation that characterises the life of a spook is an unwelcome homecoming for him. Yet, his acute awareness of the parallel between his personal experiences and the state of the world seen darkly through the eyes of spooks has elevated his writing beyond the narrow confinement of a spy genre: his work must be recognised as a sobering study of the human condition. As Tom Reagan stresses at every opportunity, the human psychology that supposedly determines human actions remains beyond the reach of human understanding, at least to the degree of precision needed to claim any form of conclusiveness. Human relations are such that no one can ever live one’s entire life with absolute honesty. In fact, one of the most important characteristics of agency is a certain degree of impenetrability. Without maintaining a certain opaqueness about oneself, one cannot be the subject of a dialectic, for one loses the ability to assert oneself as an end in itself in a Kantian sense. This is not about malicious intent to deceive or to misguide: a person simply cannot be an open book for the public. In this sense, claiming to ‘know’ someone through profiling without respecting the said person’s opaqueness amounts to disregarding the agency of that person. In such an all-too-common instance, we don’t even consider the agency of people we encounter: we simply interact with them as mere means according to the functions they fulfil. Thus, encountering another human being must be inseparable from the sense of mystery and ambiguity about someone. Hence it is not strange to think that ambiguity is one of the most essential features of human agency. Yet, it is this very nature of agency that provides the pretext of suspicion and paranoia. Because no one can know anything about anyone with sufficient certainty, one remains on guard against everyone. Whilst the opacity of human character might inspire agential respect in a sufficiently healthy society, such an environment is extremely rare. Therefore, le Carré’s lifelong study of human ambiguity and the precarious nature of human relations, albeit in the specific context of international espionage and politics, bears importance beyond his obvious mastery of a literary genre. In this light, it becomes clear that le Carré’s fiction is a fine study of human paradox, whose precariousness is heightened within a context of international espionage and politics.

That being acknowledged, it must be noted that the epistemic limitation which safeguards the agency of individuals bears decidedly sinister characteristics in the world depicted by le Carré’s fiction: it only sharpens the sense of being alone and surrounded by unspecified threats. It is because the notion of espionage presupposes the politics of paranoia: every member of this community only functions as means to outmanoeuvre the counterpart by identifying the threats, both real and imagined, and neutralising them, whilst preventing one’s enemy from doing the same. In this world of constant and omnipresent threats and paranoia, everyone is pure means: an operative must risk everything to help someone else achieve an end. Yet, even the most fanatically devoted operatives cannot completely surrender their agency, and every intelligence operation must take this problem into account. Given this particular complication present in every member in the world of espionage, one must again face this paradox: suspicion and trust are not mutually exclusive. MI-6, for example, must presuppose that an operative could be running an identity which is entirely unknown to them for the reasons which are deducible yet not precisely known to them. Yet, without trusting someone, there can be no clandestine institution, for such an entity presupposes mutual, albeit conditional, trust amongst its members. As for an intelligence service such as the CIA or MI-6, this ambiguous relation between suspicion and trust has proven to be practically insurmountable: one simply cannot set up a covert operation without trusting someone to carry out the assigned duty without fail, yet loyalty is not absolutely infallible, hence a betrayal cannot be reliably prevented: a breach is only known posterior to the deed. And, being inspired by perhaps the most notorious breach in the history of espionage, that is, the case of the Cambridge Five, le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy arguably offers the best case study of an inherent paradox which is directly linked to the inevitable systematic failure that plagues every clandestine organisation. 

This is not to say that one cannot place trust in a clandestine organisation. In most known cases, the instances of failure are uncommon enough. Still, one cannot deny the constitutive nature of the paradox. Given the nature of a clandestine organisation wherein trust and suspicion are never mutually exclusive, it is not a question of if but when a betrayal and/or a misjudgment will strike with devastating effect. Understanding this inherent structural risk embedded deep within the world of secrecy must lead us to question the nature of the fragile equilibrium upon which the stability of our world rests. Modern politics and economics increasingly rely on clandestine operations of all sorts. For example, according to Edward Snowden, the bulk of the NSA’s activities are devoted to industrial espionage, not to the safeguarding of US citizens. Given the unprecedented integration of political, economic, and military aspects of society since the beginning of global colonisation by the Europeans, gathering intelligence, whether it is about the opposition’s strategic moves or the estimated location of resources, has become a decisive factor of success. The problem here is obvious: the very activities upon which a political entity relies for its success necessarily backfire at some point through a breach, and the higher the stakes of the clandestine activity, the more devastating the consequences of a failure. Whilst humanity has been dealing with this risk since the beginning of hierarchical societies, as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy correctly demonstrates, the cost of such a failure has become unsustainable since the inception and the first employment of nuclear weapons in the 20th century. As there have been clear signs of nuclear proliferation becoming uncontrollable, the risks depicted in le Carré’s story are as relevant as ever, despite the fact that we no longer live within the stark yet somewhat simpler form of confrontation that characterised the Cold War era. As terrifying as things were back then, the nature of confrontation was relatively simpler. And, given the already straining complexity represented on screen by this movie set in a supposedly simpler time, we must be seriously concerned about the ever increasing degree of complexities upon which the world as we know it relies for its survival, for the more complex the system is, the more instances of failure. Given the significant decrease of political seriousness and the commensurate increase in our destructive capacity, although the final outcome remains the same, the balance between life and mutual destruction appears more fragile than ever.