Why is retired agent George Smiley visiting his erstwhile colleague and similarly-retired Connie Sachs? Because he has been asked to investigate—never mind by whom—whether there is a Soviet mole among the top four directors of British intelligence, a Judas among us. Connie Sachs quickly becomes despondent: how could one of their own betray his country? She tells Smiley to take a seat next to her as she retrieves an old shoebox and begins to flip through some old photographs stored therein. Look at us back then, she says, “that was a good time.” Smiley responds: “It was a war.” Connie: “A real war. Englishmen could be proud then.” A World War with clearly demarcated sides, and no moles.
“If it’s bad, don’t come back. I want to remember you all as you were,” Connie says as Smiley leaves her house.
This scene occurs early in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I watched the rest of it more or less from the same trepidatious standpoint as Connie Sachs. This was due not only to the fact that Kathy Burke’s melodramatic delivery of the “Don’t come back” line was slightly affecting, but also because Colin Firth is in this film, and at this time last year, his was the voice I associated with English pride and the War against the Nazis. But all of the deepest reasons which audiences had for admiring The King’s Speech are thrown into doubt by the premise and plot and even structure of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Among the top members of British intelligence, there is a mole who has betrayed his country and is relaying information to the Soviets. An MI6 agent named Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) was sent to Istanbul on a mission to convince a Soviet businessman to defect. Instead, he has an affair with that businessman’s wife, and she feeds him the secret, in exchange for a new life in the West. Tarr quickly realizes that MI6 headquarters is strangely non-receptive to his cables from Turkey; he has to hide from them until he can return to England and reveal his secret to the British government.
“Control,” the codename for the head of MI6, is tipped off with Tarr’s intelligence, but then is muscled out of his top position in the agency. Apparently there is a conspiracy working against him from within. Smiley (Gary Oldman), another top agent, follows him into retirement. However, certain circumstances put Smiley at the head of a secret investigation to unearth the mole. He recruits Tarr, as well as a lower-level member of MI6, to help him. The story is fragmented, and is told in flashbacks and monologues, with less than a handful of action scenes. The spies tell stories of suffering at the hands of mysterious faceless forces which can nevertheless all be traced back to the Communists. Smiley has less in common with James Bond than he does with Franz Kafka.
In a film which takes place in such a nebulous universe, we are all expected to take Connie Sachs’s point of view. We are all expected to gasp before the prospect of good guys who are not sure whether they are good guys, or whether they can truly figure out what it means to be a good guy. John Le Carré—Tinker Tailor is based on his 1974 novel by the same name—”has often been accused of promoting a view of “moral equivalence” between both sides of the Cold War. While I don’t mean to comment in any way on the novel itself, it is the case that Gary Oldman’s somber Smiley sometimes seems less than enthusiastic to fight for the side which he thinks is right. In contrast, the final words which the Mole speaks in his jail cell, before the triumphant Smiley, are poignant and dramatic. His decision to betray his country was “aesthetic,” he says, as well as moral: “The West,” he says, “has become ugly.”
More than a spy flick, this film is an exploration of the souls of men and women who, while perhaps agreeing with the Mole that the “West has become ugly,” nevertheless carry on their fight to defend it. If The King’s Speech edified by showing us a type of leadership that we wish existed today, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reflects the type of leadership we have—or think we have. The only thing that’s missing is a higher-order reflection on why these guys keep on fighting, anyway. Or on what, if anything, makes their lives worthwhile. Smiley may be a tortured soul, but he is also a tenacious and victorious spy.
Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, MA.