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The Political Relevance of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

The Political Relevance of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

What does Tomas Alfredson’s bleak, engrossing new adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1970s Cold War classic “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” have to say about our own current political landscape? Thankfully, the answer is not an obvious one. Unlike such political films as George Clooney’s “Ides of March” or “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” for that matter, “Tinker Tailor” tells a tale of loyalty and betrayal that’s actually less about double agents or subversive insurgents than corruption, conformity and disillusionment, making for a less direct and more artful political parable for our fucked-up times.

While it may not sound like a ringing endorsement, “Tinker Tailor” is one of the most dour and gloomy movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s also one of my favorites, which I guess says something about my taste. While watching it, I couldn’t help but think of that other Le Carre movie classic, 1965’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” which introduced me to the nihilistic wonders of Richard Burton. But I also recalled a more recent favorite, “The Red Riding Trilogy,” with its similarly ruddy ’70s millieu, soaked thick with conspiracy, broken men, and all-consuming fatalism.

Much has already been written about Gary Oldman’s brilliantly subdued performance as George Smiley, the over-the-hill spy who still has some game left in him, and there’s one singular quiet scene — undoubtedly one of the strongest acting moments of the year — in which Oldman’s Smiley recounts a meeting with his Russian arch-nemesis “Karla.” I probably shouldn’t hype it, as it’s not your typical over-the-top Oscar fodder, but it encompasses a man’s life’s failures and goals all in a few minutes, and includes one of the movies’ best lines: “That’s how I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”

One could say that lines like that have something to say about our present world, but I think it’s more an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair that envelopes the film, a sense that there’s no right or wrong, there’s no good or bad, and every side is as corrupt and unjust as the other, that speaks to our current realities.

“The West has become so ugly,” says one of the characters. Indeed, the film makes clear that its British secret agents are equally culpable in political wrongdoing as their Eastern counterparts. No one is trustworthy. No one is the winner. No mission accomplished signs here: If there are victories in the work of John Le Carre, they are always Pyrrhic ones.

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