These days, consideration of espionage genre picture elicits imagery of hyper-charged, quick-paced Bond or Bourne films that seem to be the celluloid agnate of an anabolic steroid injection. In a humorous observation, film scholar David Bordwell pointed out the assumed audience idiocy in The Bourne Ultimatum with a scene-setting shot: “We see a city landscape including the Arc de Triomphe; we’re told it’s Paris; and we’re told it’s Paris, France (not Paris, Maine) [in the title card].”
As part of this same essay, Bordwell goes on to explore the exquisite 2011 adaptation of John le Carré’s beloved novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson), a period piece set in early-1970s Britain and steeped in the stylistic flourishes of that era’s cinematic practices, featuring retired spy George Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) hunt for a double agent that has infiltrated the Queen’s espionage service. Bordwell’s essay is a gem, but there’s one aspect that I thought he missed.
For the past forty years, since Ronald Reagan’s election signaled the end of the mainstream experimentation seen in the prior two decades, American films dealing with geopolitics (war, spy, and political dramas) have all exuded an amplified American exceptionalism, ever more noxious than that of preceding eras.
Even purportedly anti-war films or those taking on institutional corruption (I’m thinking in particular about Oliver Stone and Michael Moore at their brightest) hearken back to a notion of halcyon days when things were allegedly wonderful. The defeat of the antagonists in these films will restore a glorious Republic.
By contrast Tinker offers something quite different. Films always express multiple meanings, but the overwhelming sentiment of Tinker is that the entire Cold War was a colossal waste. From start to end the characters are repeatedly wrecked by their service to Queen and Country. Even the protagonists who seem victorious at denouement come to these laurels at great cost and bear no assurance that they will last long.
For this reason the argument might be made that the film is not necessarily a spoof (Austen Powers covered that ground twenty years ago) but instead a genre subversion, even more substantial than the source novel, originally a rebuttal to Ian Fleming but that nevertheless maintained its reverence to the Cold War’s mythology. Le Carré continues subscription to a British Cold War liberal narrative of history, made manifest in post-1991 interviews, insistent upon the justification for the conflict.
His persistence with this narrative comes despite Soviet Communism’s collapse while its Global Southern progeny survive, demonstrating conclusively almost all the theses of this liberal narrative were dead wrong. Whereas the original novel and its BBC television adaptation believed the West had something to gain in battling the East, this picture sees the entire conflict as a squandering of time and treasure, not unlike how, for a brief moment, American cinema embraced the New Left’s antiwar perspective (cf. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket). This at least partially should be attributed to the nostalgic hindsight upon the twentieth century’s geopolitics, a time described as simple by the chorus-like retired intelligence processor Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke).
Another reason for this nostalgia is partially owed to the retrospective horrors of the Soviet Union’s implosion that catalyzes an undeniable escapism. Economic downturn, austerity, the squandered peace dividend during the Clinton/Blair years, humanitarian regime change to justify endless war, murderous confrontation with the Islamic world, the replacement of both Communism and European Social Democracy with neoliberalism and its contemporary progeny of neofascism, all spur a desired retreat to a yesteryear.
Le Carré is of course acclaimed for his world building, rivaling Tolkien with the creation of a parallel universe where his vocabulary and grammar of spy craft hearkens to British knights and courtly romantic pageantry. This is most noteworthy because these halcyon projections are admittedly as fantastic as the Knights of the Round Table that these spies seek to emulate. There never actually was a good moment of history for the British Empire, just like America can’t be Made Great Again. Even during the war, which Connie Sachs reverentially rhapsodizes for, the British wartime government caused unnecessary loss of civilian lives worldwide by insisting on the wasteful North African campaigns, delaying the Soviet conquest of the Third Reich so Churchill could reclaim colonial sovereignty for the Crown, a project Eisenhower called “periphery pecking.”
The most painful expression of this wastefulness is within the sexual dimensions of the plot, subtly hinting that the personal is political and that the (counter)revolution starts at home. Unlike James Bond, who seems immune to any consequence of his dalliances, every character in this picture has a sex life that is immiserated by the Cold War.
Sex, sexuality, and gender relations are a hurricane of misery and sadness caused by sacrifice of self-interest upon the altar of imperialism. Of particular notice is the painful representation of the closet that two significant queers are forced to occupy in order to better serve Queen and Country. One individual severs the romance with his live-in same-sex partner in order to avoid blackmail by both the British and Soviet intelligence agencies. Another uses apparent bisexuality in service of his efforts, placing institutional above interpersonal loyalties.
These days the Brits are in the midst of a political hurricane not unlike our own domestic circus. Tinker offered a very important critique of the 20th century British social contract and a warning for future generations.