Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Spies are Pasty Nerds and Circus Freaks

John Hurt, Colin Firth, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong
(Venice, Italy) To the British, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a sacred icon not to be touched. Thirty-two years ago, John Le Carré's classic spy novel had been transformed into a seven-episode television series starring another British icon, Sir Alec Guinness, who played British intelligence agent George Smiley, turning the fictional character into yet another British icon. It was in cement: GEORGE SMILEY IS ALEC GUINNESS.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley
I am trying to think of an instance in the US where a beloved novel has been turned into a beloved television series -- not a movie -- spawning a beloved fictional character, and can't come up with anything. British authors certainly excel when it comes to creating memorable sleuths and spies, perhaps because so many British authors have actually been sleuths and spies. John Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, was an agent for MI6, the British version of the CIA, which he dubs the "Circus."

I have spent the last year doing intensive research about the CIA, MI6 and other mysterious organizations in an attempt to understand the bizarre events that have happened to me on a personal level over the past few years. Reading John Le Carré was part of that research, as was reading "Operation Mincemeat," the truth behind "The Man Who Never Was." One of the fascinating things I learned is that intelligence agencies love to hire novelists! (Since the fictional story they tried to impose upon me was written by a hack, one can assume that the story was written by an American or a very lousy British writer.) In any event, I did learn a lot about the spy business and was very much looking forward to this movie.

John Le Carré is a brilliant author, though I have not yet gotten my hands on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Nor have I ever seen Alec Guinness, a brilliant actor, in the TV series. So, my point of view is not colored by warm fuzzy images that come from a beloved television show, or an image I've created myself from reading a novel. George Smiley is a new character for me.

Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious
Gary Oldman, however, is one of my favorite actors. He is the new George Smiley in the movie version of Tinker, Tailor. I first saw Gary Oldman on the London stage in the 1980s before he became a movie star. Back then, he was a very talented, very bad boy, full of explosive passion and rage. Now, under the helm of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, Oldman's passion and rage are internal, a smoldering volcano, completely under control.

Here is the review I agree with the most, Leslie Felperin from Variety:

John Le Carre reportedly once said, "Seeing your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes." Maybe so, but in the case of helmer Tomas Alfredson's version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the result is best likened to a perfectly seasoned consomme. An inventive, meaty distillation of Le Carre's 1974 novel, pic turns hero George Smiley's hunt for a mole within Blighty's MI6 into an incisive examination of Cold War ethics, rich in both contempo resonance and elegiac melancholy. Finely hammered to appeal to discerning auds and kudo-awarding bodies, "Tinker" should do sterling biz.

Here is my favorite snippet from Leslie Felperin's review:

Gary Oldman as George Smiley
One of the pic's biggest departures from the source is to weave in flashbacks to a Christmas party, a scene that was never in the book. The party sequence efficiently reveals how Smiley learned about his wife Ann's infidelity, a crucial component in the theme of betrayal, and also sets an atmosphere and tone that makes this version of "Tinker, Tailor" feel fundamentally different from its predecessor: Under unglamorous strip lights redolent of '70s-era think tanks and the opposite of the gentlemen's club atmosphere of the TV series, the men and women who work for the Circus look more like the pasty nerds real Mi6 people probably were then (and maybe are now). They may hold the fate of the Western world in their hands, but many of them are outsiders to the regular establishment. 

They are a bunch of pasty nerds! I've met them! Not just the MI6 people, but also the CIA and State Department people! It was a conclusion I had reached on my own, and I am happy to have it confirmed. Except for some who are "born" into the business, intelligence agencies seem to recruit nerds who dream of being somebody: wanna-be actors, wanna-be writers, wanna-be artists, wanna-be photographers. There are inept clergymen (much more exciting to be a spy Chaplain), and inept doctors, judges and lawyers (cash kick-backs for spy doctors, judges and lawyers). And like members of a Circus, they are also often freaks. I kept running around saying: "Who are these people? SAG extras are better actors than these characters!" Because our image of spies has been colored by James Bond and Hollywood glamor, it was quite a shock to realize that in reality they are actually pasty nerds and circus freaks! Movie stars have made them glamorous, but in real life, they are not.

Colin Firth as Bill Haydon
However, there is a particular dark quality that separates a regular pasty nerd from a spy pasty nerd: spies out in the field burn with jealousy and envy toward legitimate professionals, and have no qualms about using defamation of character, whisper campaigns, violence, lies, and manipulation as their weapons. They are greedy, and see nothing wrong with having a job whose mission is to destroy innocent people. They lack empathy, so hurting other people -- physically, mentally or emotionally -- does not affect them like most of humanity.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam
Other people's suffering gives them pleasure, especially if the people they have targeted are glamorous or talented or sophisticated or don't agree with them. They are often sexually frustrated, and are obsessed with the sex lives of others. I am sure there are many legitimate, healthy people that work in intelligence, but the ones I've actually encountered are pasty nerds or so clever that I don't know they are spies. From what I've read, the original CIA was founded by elegant, sophisticated people who really wanted to serve the country, but nowadays the quality has gone down, and the quantity has gone up. If the world could grasp the enormity of this concept -- that the people who hold the fate of the Western world in their hands are a bunch of pasty nerds and circus freaks motivated by envy, jealousy and greed -- we will begin to understand much about why the world is in the mess it is today.

John Hurt as Control
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy illustrates this concept beautifully. It is a very European film which might be difficult for American audiences to watch. I wish there had been more of John Hurt, who was most definitely not a pasty nerd. One quibble I have is that I think the drunken Gary Oldman soliloquy would have worked better had it been done in flashback. Not that Gary Oldman wasn't brilliant, but the information he had to impart was too important to be delivered in a drunken monologue. American audiences would understand it better had it been acted out. Monologues are not part of our culture unless they are delivered by comedians on late night talk shows.

Ciao from Venice,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Gary Oldman, however, is one of my favorite actors. He is the new George Smiley in the movie version of Tinker, Tailor. I first saw Gary Oldman on the London stage in the 1980s before he became a movie star. Back then, he was a very talented, very bad boy, full of explosive passion and rage. Now, under the helm of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, Oldman's passion and rage are internal, a smoldering volcano, completely under control.

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