At the conclusion of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first thing I did was ask myself what the eff I had just seen.
A few too many plot intricacies and characters for a clear image to form for a first-time viewer, especially one who hadn’t read the John le Carré book on which this adaptation is based. I have something of a handicap when it comes to complex plots anyway (YEAH, I LIKE MOODY, ATMOSPHERIC CHARACTER PIECES THAT GO NOWHERE, SO WHAT), so this was always going to be a problem for me. It’s like certain math problems. I know I’m capable of solving them if I just go about them in an orderly fashion. But in an effort to psych myself up and convince myself that I can, indeed, follow along the thread of the narrative and work out what is happening and why, I manage to, well, completely over-psych myself and sometimes I fail to recognize even the most rudimentary of facts. Here, I don’t mean that I couldn’t figure out who the spy is or that I got confused by some deliberate obfuscations — of course you’re not supposed to really know, or if you have an idea there’s still a lot to see in the hows of the unraveling.
No, the questions I ask myself when watching thrillers like this are: “Wait, who is that? Have we seen him before? Didn’t he die? Is this a flashback? Oh, and he died? When did he die? How did he die? What? What was his name? Was that a code name? Have these two characters seen each other before? Does he know that the other guy knows that thing? What was that significant look about? Are the things they are saying right now literally true? What, in the name of all that is holy, is GOING THE HELL ON RIGHT NOW?” And I ask these questions of things that transpired five minutes previously. “KEEP UP NOW, GODDAMN IT, KEEP UP,” I chastise myself harshly, and then I fall even farther behind.
I got the impression from a few blurbs I read that I’m not the only one who had these difficulties with Spy, though, which I found affirming. Also, it doesn’t help that stuffy middle-aged English white men all look alike, and that’s like, 99% of the characters in this movie!!
The plot in a nutshell: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has recently (and wrongly) been dismissed as intelligence agent at MI6. He’s brought back in secret to investigate a claim that a mole for the Russians has infiltrated British Intelligence and holds a high rank. He interviews recently dismissed members of the agency along with the help of a trusted ally (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has access to the agents in question (including Colin Firth). Doubts are raised as to whether the mole even exists. WHO WILL WIN THIS GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE? AND OTHER MOUSE? AND MANY, MANY OTHER MOUSES BESIDES THE FIRST MOUSE???(????)
But even if it was a bit too complicated, I still thought it <i>was</i> a fun challenge to untangle and incorporate each new layer and revelation into the overall mystery. I read somewhere that channels of communication was supposed to be a big theme in this movie, and certainly figuring out who knows what and who’s been on the horn to whom and even simply deciphering the look on Smiley — our protagonist’s — face as he puzzles this out is a big part of the appeal of this movie. Also well-handled were all the little details, the inner workings of how information flows through parts of MI6 and how it communicates with other parts of the state: there was a very curious tube carrying documents through the floors of the intelligence headquarters; the layers of security and the clever ways they’re breached to gain information; telegrams sent in numeric code; archival footage rewound and scrutinized again and again for clues in the form of simple gestures.
A lot of this movie is the jargon and minutiae of an investigation in the intelligence service, and that itself is engaging, but there are many fascinating moments where we settle down into the private lives of former agents and see how their work has bled into and changed their lives, pretty much always for the worse. Smiley’s sporadically-present wife has left him again, and small scenes of Smiley sitting alone watching TV in their darkish mausoleum of a home inspire sympathy and an increased respect for the buttoned-up way he goes about his business. Then, when the investigation becomes ever more precarious, Guillam, the agent he enlists to help him conduct his investigation, is forced to break things off with his live-in partner who can’t know the reasons behind it. Then there’s the close friendship between two other central players within the intelligence service that is fractured under the weight of all the secrets and betrayals. These moments are short and sweet but subtle, and add a richer backdrop for the movie’s central action.
But let’s get to the part that I really care about, which is my boy, Gary Oldman. Sign #547 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t know shit: this is the first movie that my dear Gary ever received an acting nomination for. And you know what! He’s great. When is he ever not great? But as I’m sure was pointed out dozens, DOZENS of times when it was actually irrelevant, it’s just so funny that this was the movie he finally got a nomination for. He’s polished, intelligent, dignified, blah blah.
What the hell do I know about acting and what really stretches an actor? Not a damn thing. But I think it would’ve been great for ole Gaz to get a nod for a role that was maybe more quintessentially Gary or maybe, like, just a little more interesting. Like. Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Dude is funny, poignant, sweet, and a bunch of other things besides. And of course dear Gary has made quite a name for himself playing oddly charming batshit crazy guy in a variety of movies. Virtually everything I’ve ever seen Sir Oldman (has he been knighted? who cares) in has just a little more going for the performance than this movie. I mean, it’s just that type of character and that type of movie. Am I making sense? Have I been appropiately slavish of Gary Oldman?
Why don’t I just include a damn clip of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. You know, because.
In summation, Gary Oldman can do anything. And I give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy three out of five Crazy Gary Oldmans. Or like 3.4. Whatever, I liked it!