Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A slower, more difficult British spy flick.

Gary Oldman was just nominated for an Oscar for his performance as British spy George Smiley in the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Oldman’s performance was quietly spot-on in the intense and slowly-paced spy thriller, which employed more cinematic discretion—and significantly less gun play—than any American spy thriller I’ve ever seen.

The movie is based off of a 1974 novel of the same name by John le Carré. In it, George Smiley as he tries to weed out the Soviet Union mole in the British Intelligence, dubbed “the Circus.” There are four possible suspects—dubbed tinker, tailor, soldier and spy—and Smiley must overcome his personal biases and history to weed out the threat.

The movie shifts between 1973, and the year before when an agent named Jim Prideaux was sent to Budapest to gain a Hungarian general contact who was willing to share information about the Soviet Union. There, Jim was shot in the back and tortured by the Hungarian intelligence, which somehow found out about his whereabouts and intentions. Because of the scandal surrounding the Hungarian issue, George Smiley was forced into retirement until he was asked to discover the identity of the mole a year later. 

We also flash back to another year-old incident in Istanbul in during which an apparently-rogue agent named Ricky Tarr first discovered the possbility of a mole. He had been sent to Turkey to investigate a potential Soviet agent, but instead had an affair with the Soviet’s wife, Irina, who first told Tarr of the British mole. Tarr informs Britain of the mole, but soon after, the station chief is murdered by the Russians. Tarr is blamed for the murder, and has to go on the lam for a year until he can track down Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not as easily accessible as many American movies of this genre. It's a difficult film. The movie was not linear at all, skipping around from different countries, places and time periods. The movie flashes from Britain to other countries with the use of shots of different cities and from the present day to close-ups of characters’ faces to signal memories. Only as the movie unfolds does the audience begin to understand what had happened the year before in Hungary, the details of Smiley’s wife’s affair, and the goings-on within the British agency.

Also difficult is the quickness with which the characters are introduced, with little elaboration of their role in the organization, their relationships with one another or their motivations. At first, it is quite difficult to follow these shifts, but by the end of the movie, all of the director’s choices come together expertly, and audiences are rewarded more completely for their hard-to-follow watching.

Have you seen Tinker Tailor Solider Spy? Do you think that Oldman deserves his nomination?