Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
This past weekend I saw both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Rarely have I seen two films technically of the same genre, yet almost entirely different in tone, style, and plot. However, both films do what they do very well, and present interestingly contrasting interpretations of the spy genre.
Confession: I am a fan of John le Carré – especially the George Smiley books – and so that will necessarily cloud my response to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Tinker, Tailor in particular has always struck me as a difficult story to adapt specifically because it goes out of its way to depict espionage in a very anti-James Bond sort of way. Gary Oldman gives an impressively subdued performance as aging spy George Smiley. Oldman as Smiley is as deliberately and methodically paced as the film itself, as shown by an opening sequence which goes on for several minutes before his character speaks. Other casting highlights include John Hurt as Control, Benedict Cumberbatch (from the BBC Sherlock series) as Smiley’s assistant, and Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth in key supporting roles. In other words, it’s a veritable who’s who of currently popular British actors.
This cast is key to the film’s success. Unlike most contemporary spy films (Bourne, Bond, Mission: Impossible, etc), this film – like the novel on which it is based, sets out a very real and mundane vision of British espionage. The spies presented here deal with paperwork, archives of documents, and bureaucratic meddling with nary an explosion or gadget in sight. When shots are fired, it is jarring and decidedly not fetishized. The spies of the Circus are real people who face real consequences for their actions, both right and wrong. The film impressively condenses the events of the admittedly dense novel to feature-length, preserving its tone and style even as it necessarily omits or glosses over some elements of the plot. Unfortunately, at times the film can be heavy with spy jargon and light on definitions or explanations, which may be confusing to those who have not read the novel.
In spite of that drawback, the film admirably addresses issues which are typically presented only superficially in spy movies. Namely, it makes the bureaucratic hierarchy of spy organizations, loyalty, and the control/flow of intelligence central to the plot. As a result, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is focused almost entirely on the internal conflicts and affairs within a spy agency, with international missions existing only as a fraction of the espionage game.
I’ve heard various friends and critics call Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy boring and incomprehensible. However, I had no trouble following the film or maintaining interest in the plot even though it has been easily five years since I read the novel. While it lacks explosions, gunfights, and anything resembling the quick-cut style that has come to dominate post-Bourne Identity spy films, it is unlike any other recent spy film in its treatment of character and politics. It requires a greater attention span than the average film of its genre, but is well worth the effort. I sincerely hope it leads to adaptations of other novels in the series, ideally with the same or a similar cast.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is, on the other hand, much more what would be expected from a spy movie. Unlike Tinker, Tailor, but in keeping with the prior three films of the M:I franchise, the emphasis is more on action with any subtle attempts at espionage quickly failing and giving way to brute force. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, top agent for the IMF, and Simon Pegg is back as the team’s tech guy. For me, however, the highlight was newcomer to the series Jeremy Renner as agent/analyst William Brant. It seems to me this new character is being set up as a key player in a continuing M:I franchise, with Ethan Hunt moving up to more of a leadership role. This makes Mr. Renner a very busy action hero; in addition to this film, he will be featured in the upcoming The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy, which are also expected to lead to sequels.
Especially impressive for this film was the live action feature debut of director Brad Bird (The Incredibles). Under his direction, the film manages the fast pace and energetic camera movement which is to be expected from contemporary action films. Yet he manages this without resorting to the kind of incomprehensibly fast cutting that makes films like Quantum of Solace so difficult to watch. Honestly, one of my favorite moments of the film is the opening credit sequence, which takes the form of the opening of the TV series (clips pulled from the week’s episode hinting at events to come, intercut with the iconic burning fuse) and updates it with current filmmaking techniques and a lovely interpretation of Lalo Schifrin’s theme song arranged by composer Michael Giacchino. The result makes this film, more than any of the other sequels, feel connected to the history of the franchise. However, rather than dating or weakening the film, Bird uses this connection positively, to show how Mission: Impossible can continue to be relevant as a franchise while staying true to its 1960s roots.
What surprised me most about this Mission: Impossible film was the amount of humor – especially at Tom Cruise’s expense. I lost count of how many times one of Hunt’s otherwise cool-looking stunts went wrong, usually ending with the master spy banging his head on something. The sense of humor is also aided by the continued presence of Simon Pegg’s character, whose function (in addition to providing the team with plenty of technobabble and gadgets) is to lighten the mood with his charming mix of sarcasm and typically English self-deprecation.
As with all the M:I films, there are some logical gaps (though none so bad as M:I 2) yet in this case they do not detract in any meaningful way from the film’s entertainment value. While I think my favorite of the series is still the first (directed by Brian DePalma), this one is easily the best of the sequels, and I look forward to seeing where the franchise goes from here.
So that’s that – two almost totally different spy films seen in one weekend. Both are a lot of fun, although clearly M:I4 is the one set to appeal to a broader audience. That is a shame, though, because as fun as the cast of that film is, it pales in comparison to the all-star cast of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…is to see both. Trust me – they’re quite good.
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© Ralph Lawson III, 2012, All Rights Reserved