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Michael Jones

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Posted: 12/19/11 11:46 AM ET

There's cultural self-loathing at the heart of Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A tearing at the fabric of Western culture and values based on historical illiteracy and ideological hipness. You know, like typical network news anchors, showing their chops on the au courant issues of the day. Which was strange to find in a movie based on a book that celebrated what made England unique and good and worthy. Indeed there is a perverse web of propaganda spun throughout that ruins the movie.

It is as if the post Soviet Union John le Carré, the man who lost his muse with the breakup, rewrote the book to match his new disgust with it all, and Tinker has been tinkered with.

Most will know Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from the wonderful book or the equally wonderful BBC series of 30 years ago. The book is in my top 10 and the series, starring Alec Guiness as Smiley, a masterpiece of Masterpiece Theater-dom.

I don't think there was another movie this year, based on cast and trailer, that I looked forward to with as much enthusiasm as I looked forward to this one. Alas, I must report, after seeing it this weekend, a betrayal as profound as the Circus' by its Soviet mole.

Tinker, the book, was a tale well told of gross betrayal. A story based on true events. A massive penetration at the very top of British intelligence costing countless lives that persisted until the '70s. A deep penetration, over many decades, that extended as far as our State Department and CIA as revealed in the Venona Files. A riveting story of betrayal, betrayal on many levels: between countries, between friends, between lovers, between a man and his wife. A dense, intelligent, sophisticated plot that described concentric circles of deceit, one bleeding into another, pebbles dropped into a still pool of trust causing ripples of violence that spread from Istanbul to London, from friend to friend, to a look between lovers discovering, as life teaches, that hearts rarely run true.

The new Tinker finds actors at the top of their craft betrayed by a director and scriptwriter with agendas beyond imaginatively making a great novel into a greater movie.

As Smiley is betrayed by Ann, by the Circus, by friends, by life, the movie is betrayed by a script that invents inexplicable scenes for incoherent reasons. A script that diminishes major characters, instead relying on moody meandering scenes signifying nothing. The ineptitude extends to a set designer's decision to substitute big airy office spaces and industrial lifts for the small clanking elevators and the cloistered clubby feel of the Circus' old building. A building that seemed to lean in on itself to protect its secrets. The set design makes it impossible to supply the aching intensity of document retrieval under watchful eyes as Smiley begins to unwind the mystery of 'Witchcraft.' There's little room for the delightfully arcane security procedures that added color to the words on a page. That entire precise atmosphere replaced with walkabouts in what looks like a well-lit newsroom.

Tinker was set during the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union's murderous ways were well-known, when the British Secret Service was a bulwark against Soviet expansionism and desire for global hegemony. In those days, even in the ambiguous world of spies and skullduggery, there were clear divisions between good and evil.

Jim Prideaux, played by the wonderful Mark Strong, an Englishman through and through, do the right thing and all of that, reduced in this script to a one-dimensional assassin and, perhaps, motivated by rejection by a male lover, rather than God and country.

Friendships between major characters, great men in the war, the betrayal between them at the heart of the plot, made even more acute by the intensity of the war against Hitler, diminished by fashionable modernisms. The default position of the screenwriters, seemingly to pound into the viewer a modern amoral moral equivalence, Western cupidity and decadence, even to the extent of making the noble heroism of the exhausted, cuckolded, George Smiley cartoonish and grey.

I was not surprised to find out on IMDb that one of them wrote Men Who Stare at Goats.

The writer and director elect to gut one of the great spy novels ever written for political, personally indulgent reasons. Peter Guilliam's dogged earnestness from the book now coupled with a completely invented irrelevant male lover's abandonment.

Why? To what end?

The wonderful detail of spycraft, the colorful language of the Circus, the different classes of agents: scalphunters, housekeepers, minders, described for the first time in Tinker almost entirely lost in the movie.

No one knew much of spycraft before the book, not many will know anything more about it after seeing this movie.

The original tight plot made the search for the mole as exciting an intellectual journey as literature or television can produce. In Alfredson's version that plot is reduced to dreary set pieces, mostly of Oldman's Smiley gazing mournfully out of rain spattered windows. The Tinker, the Tailor, the Soldier: complex, interesting characters all, indeed well played by great actors all, reduced to pawns occasionally called on to nod sagely in scene after scene. The wonderful sense of bureaucratic infighting, personality driven ambitions, ambiguous motivation, who is the mole, who the greatest betrayer of them all, lost amid invented subplots and a ponderous, inchoate script.

Then an invented jarring scene casually describing America's torture of Karla... no, not water boarding, but the even crueler pulling out of fingernails, because, you know, Americans are well known for torture.

A traditional West Hollywood shout out, I suppose, lest we forget Abu Ghraib, and the mythology of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the neanderthal Neo-cons. As I said, let's ignore Stalin, Mao, and the KGB in an orgy of cultural self-loathing.

My memories of the end of the book are of an elegiac, sad, summing up, and a renewed commitment to fight the good fight against Soviet nihilism. Not so with the end of this movie: the mole uncovered, but understood amid fashionable moral equivalence and an absurd revenge fantasy worthy of a Death Wish movie.

Am I too harsh?

An example for lovers of the book and series: the wonderful set piece of exquisite spycraft involving the once lovely Connie, in her dreary Oxford bed sit. Smiley plying her with scotch, a key scene that sets the entire story going. Her lovely imagined affairs with her 'boys' punctuating the telling, the audience rapt, whether reading or watching on the telly, a single photo leading directly to the mole: is it the Tinker, the Tailor, the Soldier or even Smiley, done in passing. Dismissed. An afterthought. Dismissible. Well, that's in the can, on to more invented loathing of what Smiley represents, what England was.

After a while I sat in the dark increasingly disappointed by what was and was not happening on the screen, but, then realized that more than disappointment, the primary reaction to Tinker was unthinkable given the source material: boredom.