Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reel To Reel: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

It's all in your head.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth
Rated: R
Red Flags: Some brief language, two violent scenes, and one graphic sex scene shown from a distance

"Watching this movie was like watching paint dry," observed my Queen Mother as we walked out of the theater. But my Royal Father liked it. Your humble servant had mixed feelings. This a movie that deserves a split rating, like grading a figure skating performance: one rating for technical merit, another for artistic impression. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a superbly made movie about its subject matter. But as such, it's disappointing to audiences fed four decades of James Bond. As a cloak and dagger thriller, it's more cloak than dagger.

The film takes place in 1973, in a slightly warmer Cold War, and British Intelligence is trying to find a Soviet mole high in "the Circus," as spooks call it. An operation to learn the double agent's identity ends bloodily in Budapest, and when that happens, a head has to roll at the top. Mr. Smiley (Oldman) is forced out of the Circus, consigned to a life of mediocre post-spy existance. But the mole is still there.

Smiley's former superiors ask him to conduct an under-the-wire investigation to root out the mole. This is the point where a conventional spy movie would be submersing us in danger and beautiful women at exotic locations. Instead, it takes on more of the feel of a detective novel. We see many shots of Smiley walking and carrying a satchel, walking some more, walking again, and asking a few choice questions of a few spook sources.

We learn this mole may or may not have something to do with a top-secret information clearinghouse designed to milk a particular Soviet source who's thought to be providing a gusher of valuable intelligence -- or is it just well-phrased garbage?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ia a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the word, where the action takes place in your brain as you process its endless stream of information and clues trying to figure out what's going on. And yet this film still feels bloated, like something could still be trimmed. No doubt that's due to the involvement of John Le Carre, who serves one of the producers on this adaptation of his novel. You will also hear a lot of praise for Oldman's performance, but it's hard for me to award a laurel to a performance which has only one mode.

I really enjoyed this film's treatment of the 1970's world of intelligence gathering, where people still hacked away at Olympia typewriters and teletypes and used land-line dial phones. Intelligence workers will tell you their jobs are mostly analytical and not exciting. In real life, yes, but most moviegoers will expect something more.

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