Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John Le Carre’s novels about the Cold War era are among the finest spy thrillers. His recurring espionage agent, George Smiley, is not a caricatured James Bond or a rough-and-tumble Jason Bourne. Instead, Smiley demonstrates the true complexity and moral conflict of a man who protects his country and her way of life by infiltrating and often breaking the laws of another. He is a man who lives a life of quiet isolation. Gary Oldman plays him brilliantly in this version of the story, in which Smiley must ferret out a mole in the upper echelons of MI6.

When I heard that Tinker Tailor was being remade, my first reaction was “Why now?” The Cold War has been over for a long time. Countries that once made up the Soviet bloc are no longer our enemies, and the political and economic philosophies that separated us then don’t inform the conflict we now experience in the Middle East.  Agent Smiley “came in from the Cold” a long time ago, and for good reason. I assumed the story would be updated or at least modified to offer a fresh look at current moral dilemmas.

The answer to “Why this film now?” surprised me. Tinker Tailor isn’t just a remake of a spy thriller. It is a remake of a ’70s film, and a perfect example of this season’s retro moviemaking trend. More than a movie about the ’70s, it is a movie made like a ’70s movie. Filmed in Super 16 mm, which was used for filming television shows and some movies during that time, Tinker Tailor has the grainy texture of a Bullitt or a French Connection, two films that represent the era.  The direction is slow, and the pacing even slower – as in those films, which we once considered so tense and exciting. 

Everything about this film makes it feel like a reissue rather than a remake. Its old-school communication equipment, Wang word processors, shaggy hairstyles, and polyester clothing feel natural and unobtrusive rather than recreations designed for retro effect. It was reported that Oldman searched diligently through several vintage shops to find just the right eyeglasses for Smiley to wear. Even the outdoor scenes of London have the grimy, dusty look of the ’70s, before London was scrubbed clean and white in the ’80s and kept that way through better emissions controls.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t as thrilling as the Bourne movies or as campy as the Bond films. But it is an impressive tribute to the books and films of the ’60s and ’70s, with an impressive cast of A-list actors as well, including John Hurt as Control, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, and even John Le Carre as a guest at the Christmas party. If you are a fan of spy thrillers or simply a film history buff, you will enjoy this movie. It’s not an action flick by any means, but it is smart, intense and absorbing.