Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I've been waiting to see "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" for months now.  Just the cast alone is enough to make my mouth water.  We got some Gary Oldman, some Tom Hardy, a helping Mark Strong, some John Hurt, a pinch of Colin Firth, and a small bit of Toby Jones.  That's an excellent blend of acting spices, mixed together into a Cold War spy movie.

Now I loved "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", it was definitely one of the best movies of the year.  But coming to this conclusion was a few days in the making.  Sometimes I can watch a movie, drive home, jump on my laptop and immediately being drumming my keys to make the brilliant observations and beloved humor that has made me a millionaire celebrity in the blogging circles.  Unfortunately sometimes its a slower process, where I have to take a few days to properly digest my thoughts*.  And I have, and those thoughts were particularly delicious this time.  Now "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was really good, and I liked it.  But it was also a slow contemplative movie with a humorless protagonist and a grim atmosphere... kinda exactly like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".  Only this movie was fun, I sat gripped to my seat for its entire time, not bored for a second.  With the dragon-tattoo girl, I checked my watch at one point and almost wept knowing there was a full hour remaining before I could escape that horrible movie.

Part of the story obviously has to be acting.  "Tinker Tailor" is full of amazing actors, some of the best men in the business, all of whom really do seem to be giving their best.  Daniel Craig slept through his movie and Salamander alone could not save that movie.  But the other issue is that I just don't care about Sweden's misogynistic issues or whatever the central theme of that movie is.  As for a grand spy mystery, I can get behind that.  Finally "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is definitely the best mystery movie of the late-2011, it was just really really good.

At its core, "Tinker Tailor" is a resurrection of 60s-era spy fiction like "The Prisoner" or "Mission Impossible".  The English spy agency is referred affectionately as "The Circus", their first boss is known only as "Control".  The main character's name is "Smiley", which I thought was an ironic code-name but that's actually his real last name.  However, unlike say, "James Bond", this movie presents itself as a serious depiction of the real world of Cold War espionage.  Which is fitting because its based on a book of the same name by John le Carre, a pseudonym for an actual former British spy, who ran into a double agent situation very similar to that seen in this movie.  "Tinker Tailor" revels in recreating the fashion - especially the interior decorations - of the late 60s/early 70s in Britain, and the result is a very authentic movie.  The paranoia, the pressure, and the insanity of the Cold War period is fully on display here.  And this movie is good, I'm not a small bit sad that I - thanks to an ill-timed birth - entirely missed those good old days of "good vs evil" Super Power duels.

The central plot of "Tinker Tailor" is a search for the mole that now inhabits the top of the Circus.  Somebody within the inner circle of directors is working for the Russians, and every move the Circus makes is hounded by the Reds.  The title is the series of code names given to all the possible suspects, based on a British nursery rhyme I've never heard of until now.  At the start of the movie, Mark Strong is gunned down in Hungary, causing the fall from grace of Control and Gary Oldman's George Smiley.  Smiley lives a quiet life alone (while his wife has numerous affairs) before he's called back into service to find the mole and save the West from losing the Intelligence Front.  To solve the grand riddle that dominates the entire movie, George recruits a long officer in the Circus to spy against his superiors, and then works to unravel the grand web of lies, misinformation, and affairs that dominate the spy underworld.

Gary Oldman, I must mention, is probably the most brilliant actor alive today.  He can play any role, any role, and he's awesome in just about everything.  The last movie I saw him in was "Red Riding Hood" where he immediately realized that the movie was intensely stupid and so set out to make the most ridiculously entertaining performance you'll ever see.  He might have actually worn clown make-up in that movie, I don't remember.  But in "Tinker Tailor", he's playing exactly the opposite, totally cold-fish.  George Smiley never lets the audience in, he never lets anybody in.  All you have is his classic 70s glasses and a wry smile on his face.  At first I though George Smiley was constantly neutral, but he always stayed cooly professional, seeming to know everything at once even while knowing nothing.  Smiley is a machine of spying, and that seems to be all he's good at.  His wife cuckolds him, he lives alone without much in his life, he doesn't seem to have any friends, and he's such an emotionless creature.  But Gary Oldman makes it all very compelling, even if his character is weak as a functional protagonist.

The characters the audience has to really sympathize with are the other spies working around Gary Oldman.  In several portions of the movie other figures take large roles and tell their backstories, and these men manage to bring easily reachable humanity to the movie.  Even the mole, for all his unknowable motives, was more flesh and blood than Smiley.  I thought it all worked for this movie, and I would like to see Mr. Smiley in more films.

Speaking of other characters, as I mentioned before, the cast is fantastic.  Do I need to list off the names once again?  Just a film with Gary Oldman and Mark Strong together would be enough, but through in faces like John Hurt and Colin Firth, you have something really special.  Mark Strong, as I've mentioned several times, is such a great actor that he's the only person in the entirety of "The Green Lantern" production who seemed to actually care to make a great movie.  The acting is impeccable in this film, I could fawn over these guys for years.

Unfortunately, "Tinker Tailor" is a boy's club movie, there are barely any women in it.  Gary Oldman's wife never shows her face.  The most prominent woman is Tom Hardy's Russian girlfriend, and even she is not in the movie long enough.  A less intelligent movie would feature some kind of sexy rival spy for George Smiley to meet with a dry martini and then drag into bed.  However, Smiley is definitely not wooing any super models in this film, he's a bureaucrat detective, not an adventurer.  If you're looking for the action-packed silly spy movie, I'm sure "Mission Impossible 4" is playing in your theatre nearby.  Though if you really want mindless fun, just hunt down the old arcade machines and play some "Gunblade" for an hour.

By the way, "Tinker Tailor" is not without its own entertainment.  Its mostly a somber movie, but you can tell that people actually were able to find enjoyment out of life here, unlike "Dragon Tattoo".   In a flashback to a Circus office party, the entire spy agency gleefully sings the Soviet national anthem to a Santa Claus with a Stalin mask.  People are actually able to crack jokes in this movie, its not all Teutonic misery like that other movie.  Plus, more importantly, this movie is actually extremely tense.  Things are constantly moving, you keep moving deeper and deeper into the mystery until finally the face of the mole is right around the corner.  But who will it be?  That's the kind of tension that a mystery movie needs.  It was exciting, which is amazing for a movie that's largely about stuffy old British men.

Some people have complained that "Tinker Tailor" is difficult to follow without reading the book.  I had some difficulties myself watching it, because for about half the movie I thought "Karla" was the name of one of the Circus execs, not the main Russian spy leader.  Most of the film is presented in the order of what George Smiley learns, not in the actual order of events.  So there are a lot of flashbacks, and sometimes its hard to tell just when some scene is taking place.  One scene of Mark Strong as a schoolteacher left me wondering if this was the past or present or some kind of bizarre alternate reality caused by a time traveling walrus.  Though that might have been deliberate, I don't know.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was just released last Friday to a wide release.  I really do have to recommend this one, its incredibly good.  And I'm waiting for the sequel.

* I find thoughts are most digestible in the car or in the shower.  Those are the only times life gives us for true solitude.

1 comment:

  1. Snubbed at the awards circuses. best movie of the year by a long way, and must give a shout out to the impeccable Benedict Cumberbatch, always a delight to see.