"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is now available in North America on Blu-Ray and DVD in North America via eOne Films (Canada) and Universal (USA). It's a stunning transfer and features a great commentary track with director Alfredson and star Gary Oldman (though with a few annoying blank gaps). The European Region B version on Optimum has quite a few more goodies on it, though, so if you have a multi-region player, you might be better off buying this one. If you missed this movie on a big screen - as per usual, SHAME ON YOU! Buy it! Watch it! Cherish it!Buy the North American version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com with good extras, but missing the super extra stuff on the European version or buy the super-deluxe European Region B version (with lots of great features not on the North American version) of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" at Amazon.UK
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) dir. Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Simon McBurney
By Greg Klymkiw
When we think of bureaucrats, if we bother to think about them at all, our first thought is usually that of a pencil-pushing-paper-shuffling civil servant toiling at a desk under fluorescent lights in a drab office filled to the rafters with others of the same ilk. I am even more uncharitable. I prefer to think of most civil servants as pathetic cogs within an imperfect machine (a Franz Kafka nightmare) who are more interested in feathering their own nests as they "make work" and scavenge about like turkey vultures upon any opportunities to extend their miserable existence in order to keep their position secure.
Perhaps the best description of a bureaucrat is the one detailed by the German sociologist Max Weber. According to Weber, a bureaucrat is appointed to his or her position solely on the basis of conduct - pure and simple (those intent on rocking boats need not apply) and faithfully, almost-blindly exercises whatever duties are delegated in strict accordance with rules that are completely impersonal. The key emolument, according to Weber, is a lifelong career and the promise of advancement (including benefits and a healthy pension). Most importantly, the bureaucrat must place his or her judgment to serve higher authorities, thus sacrificing said personal decisions if they conflict with official duties as prescribed by regulatory authorities.
Mr. Weber pretty much encapsulates my own thoughts on the matter, but with far more charity than I'm usually prepared to extend. My idea of a good bureaucrat (not always an oxymoron) is one who utilizes rules as a mere guideline and does, in fact, flout the conventional expectations when the cold black and white demands interpretation, thought and personal choices that result in better decisions within the course of exercising those duties which are ultimately there for the betterment of those who require them - especially when the prescribed formulae have NOTHING to do with reality.
When one thinks about spies engaged in international espionage, one seldom thinks of them as bureaucrats. Far too many examples exist in popular culture to allow for this. When our thoughts turn to espionage, we think of Sean Connery as James Bond - immaculately attired, bedding down a bonanza of babes, downing martinis shaken not stirred and equipped with the sort of derring-do usually suited to a comic book superhero. We certainly do not think of men attired in cheap three-piece suits, bags under their eyes, the weight of the world on their shoulders and pushing pencils whilst nattering on in buzz-word-infused babble.
Novelist John le Carré changed all that with his numerous bestselling thrillers that placed the emphasis on the drudgery and bureaucracy of spying and one of his best books, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy eventually became a much-beloved BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as the poker-faced hero George Smiley. Given the complexities of the chess-like plot, one would think a feature length version of the book would be a losing proposition.
With the brilliant Swedish filmmaker Tomas (Let The Right One In) Alfredson at the helm, the 2011 feature version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the best movies of the year and one of the great spy movies of all time.
It's a simple enough plot for a movie like this. In fact, it's the plot's simplicity which brilliantly allows the tale to work with the sort of red-herring-layered elements, complex characterizations and thematic concerns that delve deep below the surface.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and his boss Control (John Hurt) are high level members of the British intelligence service who are forced into retirement when a mission to uncover a Soviet double agent in their midst goes horribly wrong, resulting in one of Control's top agents Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) falling victim to a Soviet assassin in Hungary. A new breed/regime comprising Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) take over. One of them is a traitor. All four are especially persnickety, slimy, power-hungry bureaucrats and Bill, in particular, is pleased as punch to have been dinking his trusted colleague's wife.
After Control's death, Smiley is secretly coaxed out of retirement to ferret out the Russkie mole. With the help of a keen young agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) a former audio-visual specialist Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), a rogue bag-boy Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), memories of Control's tutelage and a surprise ally, a complex chess game plays itself out as the layers are slowly stripped away to reveal the truth.
Simple stuff and even those who haven't read the book and/or seen the BBC miniseries might well figure out the mystery long before the movie ends. It doesn't really matter because frankly, it's the ride that counts.
And what a ride!
Director Alfredson plunges us into the bleak, cold, rainy nightmare of the Cold War during the early 70s. With cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter) that harks back to the great work of Owen Roizman (Network, The Exorcist, The French Connection, Three Days of the Condor), Alfredson delivers a movie set in the 70s that looks and feels like it was MADE in the 70s. With gorgeous grain dancing across every frame, we're plunged into the murky world of bureaucrats playing deadly cat and mouse games.
And make no mistake about it, this is a world of civil servants - sitting at ratty, old office furniture, under bleak fluorescent lights, chain smoking as they engage in endless discussion whilst guzzling back cloudy cups of tea. While there are a handful of brutal encounters, they're dealt with efficiently, but not gratuitously. The suspense comes from subtleties and is found in the most unusual places - one great set piece that will have audiences on the edges of their seats involves the simple act of going through files.
I kid you not.
Alfredson's pace is masterful. It moves like a snail - but a very creepy, crawly, determined snail. Every look, gesture, eyebrow twitch, hushed word and stealthy gait explodes with resonance. He creates a very real, compelling world and one that is populated with complex and compelling characters.
The state of distrust and paranoia within the bureaucracy is especially creepy. Buried in deep shadows, dim light and the aforementioned dancing grain, the first two lines of dialogue in the movie are: "You weren't followed?" and "Trust no one." The latter is especially apt in the world Alfredson depicts, but frankly, fits very nicely with the Kafka-like nightmare that IS the civil service. And interestingly, as the movie progresses, it's so cool seeing the aforementioned Max Weber description of bureaucrats and bureaucracies play themselves out within the movie. It's like being a fly on the wall of a very strange world - one that plays out in government offices across the globe on a daily basis, but even stranger when they're set in the context of intelligence gathering and subtle back room war between super powers.
And like mentioned above, good civil servants know the rules, but if they know them really well and play by them, they also know when the rules need to be broken in order to move things beyond points of utter stagnation.
Not a single cast member seems out of place in this great picture - it's one terrific piece of acting after another. Gary Oldman, however, owns this movie and delivers the performance of his lifetime. His astonishing poker-face and rigid body language are stunningly controlled. His most phenomenal work is when Smiley decides when to display, ever-so subtly, something resembling an emotion wherein we see what Smiley wants us to see, or what we (and other characters) THINK Smiley wants us to see. And let it be said that Oldman delivers one of the most staggering screen monologues in movie history - it's up there with the greats: Richard Burton's "Bergin" speech in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Marlon Brando's "fake Ophelia" lament in Last Tango in Paris and Al Pacino's "football is life" speech in Any Given Sunday.
Finally, it's not just the impeccable taste and artistry with which the movie is rendered that makes it such an exquisite experience. The movie holds up to repeat viewings BECAUSE it all doesn't hinge on the mechanics of its admittedly solid plot, but rather the atmosphere of despair, adversity and pathetic game-playing that drives the world of these spies - on both sides of the fence. There are a series of flashbacks to a Christmas party where all the bureaucrats are united in the common goal of joy - albeit joy fuelled by the melancholy of booze - but they are UNITED, under one roof (albeit one lit with grotesque fluorescent lights) and amidst the revelry, a betrayal that's somewhat deeper than mere turn-coating and double-dealing is revealed and the sadness this evokes cuts to the bone.
Cutting even deeper still is something John Hurt's character Control declares. He says, "Nothing is genuine anymore." And he's right. When the old gives way to the new, it's not always rebirth which yields results - especially not in bureaucracies. Rebirth often means the death of that which is genuine - when the typical bureaucrats, those nest-feathering prigs seeking self-preservation over adherence to the honest goals of the civil service (no matter how coldly arrived at), worm their way into the works - gumming them up and casting aside the genuine values of those who would rather do good.
It's a great movie!