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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

From director Tomas Alfredson, whose “Let the Right One In” is probably the best vampire movie made in decades, comes another film heavy in mood and atmosphere.  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is based on a classic John LeCarre novel about British top intelligence operatives.  Few authors wrote Cold War spy thrillers as well as LeCarre, and the genius is in the details.  These are guys who pay furious attention to those details, and betray nothing in their actions or expressions.  You don’t want to play poker with these guys. Unfortunately, this film’s devotion to “real” spy work (or what I assume is more real that the James Bond) type also makes it a difficult film to digest.   It’s almost all fiber, no sugar.

The year is 1973, and there’s a mole (a double agent) in the highest circle of British intelligence.  Gary Oldman plays Smiley, a former operative who was fired after an operation gone wrong (through no fault of his own — more of a housecleaning.) He is brought in covertly to discover who the mole might be.  The candidates are an all-star list of actors, including Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Colin Firth.  Also involved along the way are a Russian cultural attaché, who might be a double agent, an officer gone MIA (Tom Hardy) who might have been turned by the Russians or might be trying, under deep cover, to bring in someone who knows the mole’s identity.   The case turns on the slightest detail — honestly, it’s a snippet of a conversation that gets played over and over, but I’m still not sure where it originated.  And of course, capturing the mole before he can disappear is almost as difficult as learning his identity was.

Everything that happens here is slow (some might say dull, and not be wrong) but also taut and often tense. The central sequence – one can hardly call it action — hinges on a subordinate’s ability to sneak a log book out of a warehouse full of them. It’s tense for sure, but still…you want  a bit more in a spy thriller.  Many are going to call this a “thinking man’s thriller,” and that’s a slam on those who will find it boring, insinuating that they’re unwilling to think.  But I consider myself a thinking man, I tend to like “thinking man’s” movies, and I still have to say — this one was sometimes dull. It is clear to me why I could never get through a John LeCarre book. Everything happens in such a muted way. If you don’t pay close attention, you’re likely to get lost and never found again. Nothing is obvious, and the film rarely goes back and explains something the characters understand but the audience may not have grasped yet.

I expect there is a high degree here of plausibility here, and that’s why it’s so slow – such a devotion to the way real spy work is done, behind blank faces, and with a high degree of attention played to the smallest detail.  It reminded me of “The Good Shepherd,” a movie from a few years ago that was about the birth of the CIA.   “Tinker Tailor” is undoubtedly superior,b ut both are super muted spy chronicles, with a focus on the toil this kind of life spent in secrecy and distrust takes on the spies and their handlers.

This film has gotten great reviews, and is certain to make a strong showing at the awards shows this spring.  It’s well-made, and there’s a great deal to admire about it.  But there’s sometimes a difference between admiring a film and enjoying it, just as there’s a difference between thinking about a film and watching one.  My suspicion is that this might be a film about which critics rave, but leaves audiences feeling a bit cold and underwhelmed.

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