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April 09, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Review: Skip It

Like, I don't know, one and a half stars. The film is obnoxious in its self-regard.

Let me explain.

There is a way of writing a screenplay, particularly exposition (telling viewers what's going on). Now, this method is somewhat artificial, of course. People don't typically call each other by their first names -- but they do this several times in the opening of a movie, just so you know what the character is named. So you know who the hell they're talking about.

But you have to do this. You don't want exposition to be obvious, but you do need to underscore the important elements and characters who will be in play for the duration of the film's running time.

Thus, moments after we first see Luke Skywalker, we hear his Aunt Beru call out to him, not once but twice: "Luke! LUUUKE!'

That "twice" thing is a standard trope in writing screenplay exposition. Let me give you a couple of examples.

If you wanted to make the plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy easy for the audience to follow, and you were writing in the standard convention of screenplay exposition, you might have a scene between two characters go thus:

SMILEY: CONTROL thought there was a mole at the highest levels of The Circus.

ADELINE: A mole at the highest levels of British intelligence?! Paranoia! How does CONTROL know the Russians weren't feeding him that nonsense to divide us?!

Now, notice two things here. First, one character states the "mole" plotline. The second character immediately repeats it -- in case the audience missed it; hey, this is the main plot of the movie, and you don't want them to miss it. It's gonna be important, you know.

Second of all, the second character responds angrily, with emotion, to make sure the audience is paying attention. We are also fed the information that Smiley believes this theory, whereas Adeline dismisses it, and thinks it's stupid.

This injection of emotion/conflict is another big UNDERLINING of the central premise of the movie -- if characters are getting angry about it, it's a tip-off it's rather important and controversial. Like, we know there will be conflict about it.

One more thing about this "repeating" business. Notice Smiley said "The Circus" but then Adeline immediately defined "The Circus" for it, choosing to not call it The Circus, but call it "British Intelligence." Thus letting us know, hey, "The Circus" means "the collected agencies of British intelligence."

Now this is an artificial form of writing, I grant you. People don't actually talk like this, as if they're speaking for the benefit of audience members who do not know as much about the world the characters live in than the characters.

And yet this is necessary, if you want your audience -- who does not know as much about the world of The Circus as the characters here -- to follow what's going on.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does this sort of thing throughout, making a fetish of making the audience "pay attention" if they want to follow things, where you have to put 2 and 2 together to figure out who people are and what's going on.

For example, a major character dies early on. Right after the prologue, in fact. He dies, get this, in a one second shot that shows him in his hospital bed. In the credits.

And it's just a one-second shot, and frankly, he might have just been sick in the hospital bed. No nurses rush in, we don't see the vital signs monitor going beeeeeep, we see no quickie shot of a funeral.

Now, five minutes later, by implication, we realize this character is dead. Well, we think we realize it, by implication, and then we kind of zoom backwards on the DVD to make sure we didn't miss anything, and oh yeah, I guess maybe that shot of him in the bed was supposed to be him dead.

Could I follow the movie? Yes, with some effort, but I have to say, it made a mystery out of things -- the basic starting situation, the basic conflict, even character's names -- where a conventional movie would have tagged those all as important and made a mystery of what the characters found to be a mystery.

That is, a better-written movie, which wasn't fetishizing subtlety and elliptical reference so much, would have just told me the key elements of the mystery so I could then focus on the mystery itself. Not sit there wondering, "Wait, was John Hurt the guy they call 'CONTROL'? Is CONTROL dead or something? Did I miss a whole death? Cripes, I'm five minutes into this movie. Did I already miss a death?"

The plotline of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is actually pretty simple: There may or may not be a mole at the top of "The Circus." CONTROL thought there was, and mounted an operation to learn the name of the Russian mole, but the operation was a bloody botch -- the mole himself tipped off Soviet intelligence and captured the agent involved.

Now George Smiley, himself retired in the wake of the embarrassment over the operation, is asked to look further into this theory, operating outside British intelligence -- that is, actually spying on the British spies themselves, without real official authorization. (That is, if they get caught spying, they're actually guilty of spying and may be hanged or whatever.)

Kind of interesting, right? Well, the filmmakers here sure don't want you to think so. They insist you do not have any fun in what sure sounds like it could be a taut Out-Spy the Spies drama.

Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy is written in an obscurantist manner to make you think it's deeper than it is, and it winds up just being coy for the sake of being coy. And it's directed in a dreary way.

Let me just give you one more complaint. There are several flashbacks that happen, all right? And one of them occurs before I'm sure John Hurt is dead, and he appears in it, so I'm like, wait, is this a flashback or a new scene? I thought he was dead. Isn't he dead?

Anyway, yeah, he's dead. That's not even the problem.

The problem is that they feature a flashback to a dead character. Then there's a character you think is dead, but they flash sideways to him (that is, unconnected to the main plot) so you wonder, wait, is he alive, or was that another flashback?

Well, that one was was a flash-sideways not flash-back. He is alive. So, you know, the first half hour of the movie, and there's a question about exactly who is dead and who isn't.

And you're sitting there trying to figure out basic facts, rather than focusing on the actual mystery the plot presents-- is one of the Big Four in British Intelligence a spy? And if so, who?

Here's another complaint, then. First, we have this stupid impulse to make mystery out of things that ought to not be mysterious. Then the film doesn't even deliver on the actual mystery -- there's not really any detection or clues to point out who the spy is (by the way, it's easy to guess, based simply on Who Would The Filmmakers Cast as the Spy). It's just sort of random. All of a sudden it's just This Guy. No real clues led there. They just rig a simple trap for him (which, by the way, they could have rigged in the first hour of the film-- they gained no new information later which was necessary for the simple trap) and he shows up.

So the movie actually falls down completely on the actual Mystery plot. Instead of giving us an engaging Mystery to try to figure out, with clues and revelations and so on, we're too busy trying to figure out who the character named "Bland" is -- is he the one with the big skull or the funereal face?

And this is just an example of how this movie fetishizes bloodnessness and borningness for the sake of boringness:

When they actually find The Spy at the trap, you just see him sitting on a chair. There is no confrontation at that moment. He doesn't react. None of the heroes confront him. No gloating, no gunplay.

You just see him for half a second, and then they flash to him in prison. There is a little talky-talk there ("how could you," etc.) but it's just strange that the film decides to cut away from the moment of maximum tension and climax to just show you the guy sitting there, relaxing, and then a moment later in prison.

See, when he's in prison, there's no more tension. There's no fear he might pull a gun or do something desperate. It's over. Rather than milk that climax, the movie makes it a very short half-second shot of a man in a chair with his legs crossed and smoking a cigarette.

The movie seems less a movie than a manifesto -- we're not going to make a movie like other movies. We're not going to spoon-feed the audience basic information in the first twenty minutes so that they can follow things.

We're also going to avoid all that "drama" stuff, because, sure, that's fun and interesting and all, but we're above that sort of thing.

Ultimately, I followed the movie. I also really didn't care about any of it.

By the way, John LeCarre, who wrote the book, is a communist sympathizer who says things like "The right side lost the Cold War, but the wrong side one." He hates the Western system almost as much as he hates the Communist one (rather more, actually, I suspect).

So he has his Mary Sue, George Smiley, say something to a Soviet agent he's trying to persuade to come over to the West: "When did you realize the society you live in was just as corrupt and without merit as the one I live in?" And he means it.

I didn't really care about this, as I was expecting it. But socialists are just so dreary and lifeless and gray.

To that extent, the film is at least a faithful adaptation.

Alternate Movie Recommendation: If you're interested in this kind of thing, rent the underrated Enigma. It's not perfect, and it gets choppy in its rush to spell plot and background information out to us (several large, difficult-to-chew downloads of background historical information), but it's well done, has good actors, and a kickass John Barry score. (Barry did James Bond, of course.)

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posted by Ace at 03:24 PM

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