“TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY” IS UNDERWHELMING, BLAND, AND DISAPPOINTING
I’ve come across my fair share of movies that escape immediate classification. It’s easy when you come across great movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” or horrible movies like “Troll 2.” But then you come across something you want to like, and could – in fact – give justifiable reasons why you should, and yet still, in the back of your mind, hear a voice going, “Don’t delude yourself. This isn’t something you like.” That is the case between me and Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a high-ranking member of British Intelligence during the Cold War of the 1980′s who is brought out of retirement when the agency (known by its agents as “The Circus”) begins to suspect it has a mole feeding intelligence to the Russians and hires him to flush the rat out. This spreads out before our eyes a world of spies – not of James Bond, but of George Smiley. Real spies who can’t solve their problems with gunfire and poison. Here, the side with the most intelligence wins. This chronicles the British agency trying to win that fight. As dark and gritty as America’s War on Terror has been, our generation has no idea the permanent state of panic we were in during the Cold War. All sides knew atomic holocaust could come with a single mistep, and everyone on each side wanted to make sure – if that ever happened – that they’d be on the right side. This is a story all about that battle of panic – and how the best people were the ones who didn’t succumb to the national panic.
This movie has a lot going for it, so much so that I feel a bit stupid in going against it. The incredibly talented British cast and the pristine cinematography are among the better elements of the project.
Unfortunately, at least for me, great mystery isn’t so much about the mystery itself as as it is about its procedural of explanation and ultimate reveal. The major fault of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is neutering the mystery element so consistently that, in the end, we really couldn’t care less when the culprit is revealed. Why? Because we have little to no idea about the stakes and inner details of the plot itself. It has been stretched so thin of its full power that we get little more than breadcrumbs of what we should be seeing. I can say this because I knew of the full story due to the novel and British miniseries before it. The mystery as it is presented here just seems too inconsequential, as so much of the full story has been cut.
Far too many people have tried to sell this as the latest “Inception” situation: if you didn’t like it, that means you’re just stupid. No. This movie is a miscalculation of what makes visual cinema entertaining and worthwhile. If we can’t follow the mystery, we can’t connect or care about anything else. What we needed is a Hastings. Or a Watson. Someone with whom can personify us – the audience – as we follow these people (who are admittedly much smarter than we are) around just so he can ask the stupid questions and the hero can answer with great wit and aplomb.
I wanted to like this movie. I still do, to a certain extent. The cast, the director, the writer… all the parts are there. But like David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” there were just some mistakes that were impossible to outmaneuver. I can’t say I enjoyed it, regardless of how much I appreciate and respect the talent involved.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” boasts a memorable cast of actors and characters, led in the capable hands of Gary Oldman and followed very closely by Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and John Hurt. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are around, but have little to do. Still, these actors are magnetic, each delivering with such effortless skill that it seems almost too easy, but unfortunately none have anything substantial to do. All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Perhaps the grossest waste is Gary Oldman, who will forever remain one of my top 10 favorite actors and one of the most underrated actors to ever live. It seems odd that Oldman hasn’t headlined a film since “Romeo is Bleeding” in 1993 and has NEVER received any Oscar recognition. Sadly, while the role itself was juicy when Alec Guinness made it his own in the British miniseries, all that complexity is nowhere to be found in Bridget O’Connor’s screenplay. Here, Smiley is downplayed to a silent observer with almost nothing to say. Now I’ve never seen a bad Gary Oldman performance out of his 44-film body of work, and this one does have some fascination to it, but it does nothing to surpass his performances in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” or “Immortal Beloved.”
The actors give it their all, especially Oldman and Hardy (who is an incredibly interesting character to watch and has the better storyline of anyone else), but I can only be so interested when I haven’t the foggiest on what the hell is going on. And again, I know it’s not me not getting it, as I know what the story is supposed to be. But the film messed up the story in making it never connect to us as viewers.
Now “12 Angry Men” is one of my favorite films of all time, so I am perfectly fine spending two hours just on a bunch of people talking – so long as I find that talking worth my time. This film didn’t do that for me. The procedures of discovery is even more murky and unrelentingly elusive than I found “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to be. The constant game of who’s-doing-what-and-why becomes frustrating and the jumps in logic are jarring. While the story does make sense upon further reading and research, but everything we see here is extremely complicated. I love complexity, but there is such a thing as taking too much upon your plate.
Ultimately, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is too large of a story to fit into this medium. The original story needed a full miniseries to tell it with any justice, so trying to force a 7-episode miniseries into a 2-hour film is going to obviously present structural narrative problems. So there are answers out there for those who leave confused, but this also means that the film doesn’t stand on its own. A sad fact, but a fact. I just wish Gary Oldman received a grander return to starring roles.